Scenarios: It’s time to choose our future
The United Nations report, Global Warming of 1.5°C, charts three ways for how this century could unfold. This is a summary of the three scenarios.
Scenario 1 We save the day
Governments take climate change seriously. Electric vehicles replace petrol and diesel, industrial-scale plants capture carbon emissions, forests are planted, agricultural practices are changed to reduce greenhouse gases and produce more food. By 2100, the 1.5°C target has been met but not exceeded.
In South Africa, summer is hotter and rain falls in shorter and more violent bursts. But smarter cities protect people from heat waves, water is put at the heart of the economy and there’s enough to go around.
Heatwaves kill people in countries and cities that can’t afford to modernise. Coastal cities that can’t invest in seawalls will be eaten away by rising sea levels and violent storm surges.
Overall, things get worse, particularly for poor people, who have less of a buffer for when things go wrong. For the middle class, life is comparable to what it was in 2020. But things are nowhere near as bad as they could be.
Scenario 2 The likely one
Countries don’t do much to tackle carbon emissions. Accelerated warming in the 2020s — as a result of natural increases and human-driven warming — leads to droughts, crop failures and fires. An emergency summit is held in 2025, where governments agree to actually do something. But the changes have to be much more dramatic than they would have been in 2018. This costs money. Renewables quickly replace other forms of energy but temperatures continue to rise. By 2040, coral reefs have all but vanished and tropical forests are shrinking. The ecosystems that protect many coastal communities from the worst of the ocean, such as mangrove forests, are gone and those people have to move inland.
The scale of transformation required means large tracts of farmland are turned over to biofuels. Food prices rise, “driving elevated levels of food insecurity, hunger and poverty”. Crop yields decline “significantly” in the tropics, leading to “prolonged famines in some African countries”. In response, people decide that food is more important than biodiversity. Game reserves and wild areas are turned into farms and animal “extinction rates increase greatly”.
By 2100, warming is brought back to 1.5°C. The cost has been high and the world is now dominated by humans because of species reduction. Nation states are only just hanging on; “migration, forced displacement and loss of identity are extensive in some countries”.
“The health and wellbeing of people generally decreases from 2020, while the levels of poverty and disadvantage increase significantly.”
The Trump-America path
Despite all their pledges, countries opt out of reducing carbon emissions. By the 2030s, a sequence of El Niño and La Niña kicks in. Major floods and heat waves hit every continent. Food production globally plummets and food prices increase. Large ecosystems — coral reefs, wetlands and forests — are destroyed. Powerful hurricanes wipe out coastal cities.
“Poverty levels increase to a very large scale and incidence of starvation increases very significantly.” High levels of public unrest follow, “resulting in some countries becoming dysfunctional”.
Panicked, the countries responsible for the most emissions at last start doing something. Energy prices soar. Global average temperatures increase by 3°C. Young and old people die in heatwaves, and fires and floods wipe out food crops. South African cities are too hot to live in.
“The world as it was in 2020 is no longer recognisable, with decreased life expectancy, reduced outdoor labour productivity, and lower quality of life in many regions because of too-frequent heat waves and other climate extremes.”
Major conflicts take place. Progress in the sustainable development goals is undone. “Almost all ecosystems experience irreversible impacts, species extinction rates are high in all regions, forest fires escalate and biodiversity strongly decreases, resulting in extensive loss of ecosystem services.”
Things only get worse after 2100.
Biblical plagues: Droughts, such as this one in the northern Cape, will become commonplace if we continue to ignore the danger signs and keep pushing carbon into the atmosphere. Photo: Paul Botes