Sce­nar­ios: It’s time to choose our fu­ture

Mail & Guardian - - News - Sipho Kings

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.”

Sce­nario 3

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

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