Climate change – is there any hope?

Marlies Craig

A brief history

A few decades ago, climate change was still something not to look forward to in the future, something to avoid. In 2021 this is no longer the case. We are in fact in the middle of it.

There is no longer any doubt that the rapid warming recorded over the past 150 years is caused by humans. Our industrial-scale activities (mainly burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil; various industrial processes; agriculture; general degradation of natural ecosystems; deforestation; waste) produce many billions of tons worth of greenhouse gases each year, which trap heat in the atmosphere. (Photo by Gerhard Roux)

Back in 1988, the United Nations felt sufficiently concerned about climate change that they established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (or IPCC) to collate, assess and report on the state of climate change science, the likely impact on nature and human societies, and what can be done about it. (Of course, climate change science goes back a lot further.)

In 1992, following the first IPCC Assessment Report, the UNFCCC was founded to act upon the findings. Have a look at the timeline to see what followed, including the 2011 COP (Conference Of Parties) in Durban. The 196 member nations, in the 2015 Paris Agreement, made a legally binding international treaty to limit global warming “to well below 2 °C … and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C”, compared to pre-industrial levels. The actual agreement is worth a read.

The sobering facts

Unfortunately, the world did not respond strongly enough to the growing evidence about climate change and to the Paris Agreement, so in 2021 we find ourselves in a 1.1°C warmer world, hoping against odds to avoid 1.5 or 2°C (or heaven forbid, even higher levels) of global warming. Global warming is uneven, and some regions have already warmed by 3°C or more. Our current trajectory is unsustainable and is leading this world into growing disaster.

Now in its 6th assessment cycle, the IPCC recently released three Special Reports. This article leans heavily on a virtual event where we summarized what the latest three IPCC reports say about Africa. One report focused on what an extra half degree of warming would mean, and what we can do to avoid it. It reported that current national climate policies put us on track for around 3°C of global warming by 2100, and more in the next century. According to this report, it is still just possible to keep global warming to below 1.5°C, but only with immediate, ambitious, rapid and far-reaching, often transformative, changes in all aspects of society.

This graph shows modelled carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per year. To avoid overshooting 1.5°C of global warming, emissions would have to start dropping immediately (green pathways) and reach net-zero by 2050. Net zero means CO2 is removed from the atmosphere at the same rate as it is produced. The orange pathways show that the longer we delay, the steeper the drop in emissions will need to be, and the more likely we are to exceed or temporarily overshoot 1.5°C. Also, the longer we wait, the more we will have to rely on negative emissions (actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere by some means). Wait even longer, and higher warming becomes unavoidable.

That was reported in 2018. It is now 2021. COVID-19 struck. Greenhouse gas emissions dropped slightly, then recovered. The global economy is back ‘on track’ to further warming. Climate change is already causing visible damage to life on earth. This will continue and get worse as the world warms further. The window of opportunity is closing fast. Some scientists no longer believe we can halt warming at 1.5°C, but it is worth every effort, to ensure a livable future for us all.

Africa will bear the brunt of the impacts, even though this continent is responsible for only about 3% of total global carbon dioxide emissions (nearly half of this comes just from South Africa, the 15th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world). Climate change is a global phenomenon. Greenhouse gases produced in one continent create havoc around the globe. Likewise, impacts in one region have knock-on effects elsewhere.

Climate change exacerbates human-caused land and ecosystem degradation, through general warming and drying, and extreme heat, rainfall, fire and storm events. The unique fynbos biome is at risk of serious degradation. Sea level rise and rising cyclone intensity are causing flooding and coastal erosion. (Photo by M. Kassier)
Oceans, which absorb most of the heat, and much of the carbon dioxide, are also experiencing more frequent and intense heat waves. Together with changes in water currents and chemistry, this creates so-called ‘dead zones’, harms marine life and destroys valuable ecosystems like corals, kelp forests and seagrass meadows.

Africa already faces many social challenges (such as poverty, diseases, lack of infrastructure, various legacy effects of colonization). Climate change places a heavy extra burden on this continent, reducing food and water security, affecting health, increasing poverty, conflict and migration, and further weakening already sluggish economies.

Climate change problems are often conflated in cities, especial coastal cities with high levels of informal development. (Photo: Enviromap)

At this point you may be asking, “Is there any hope? Are there any positive messages at all?”

Signs of hope

There are indeed reasons for hope. But let us be clear: messages of hope involve ACTION. Action = hope; inaction = no hope.

The 2018 IPCC report concluded, “Every bit of warming matters. Every year matters. Every choice matters.” One can add, “Every individual matters.” In fact, many people, once they understand the danger and urgency, ask “What can I do?” or “Is there anything I can do?”

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” To respond to this question, we put together a little booklet called What I Can Do About Climate Change, which can be downloaded for free.

The booklet describes simple actions that make a big difference quickly, such as how to slash your electricity and fuel usage (and at the same time spend less), or what consumer and food related decisions or housing arrangements are most climate friendly.

Nearly three quarters, or 72%, of greenhouse gases come down to decisions made by individuals like you and me. The trick is to (1) cut our ‘carbon footprint’ by half over the next few years, (2) start investing in renewable energy for the long term (by installing solar or wind power and through our financial investments), and (3) mop up the carbon dioxide we have produced already, for instance, by planting indigenous trees. Many decisions have multiple simultaneous benefits for climate change, for nature, for society in general, and for our personal health and bank accounts.

Of course, individuals alone cannot solve the problem of climate change. Governments, industries, economies, sectors, society as a whole, will have to respond too.

We have proof that societies can change rapidly and fundamentally. For instance, in the 1980s and 1990s when scientists revealed that certain chemicals were creating a dangerous hole in the ozone layer, the governments of the world put in place policies to stop this danger, and now the ozone hole is healing.

Currently the global society is facing another global threat: COVID-19. Although the pandemic is an unmitigated disaster, it has forced society to respond, through cooperation, drastic change, investment of funds, amongst others. These responses have not come without their own costs, but what has been illustrated is that it is possible to change the course of history, more or less overnight.

Can climate change unify the world into a positive response likewise? Indeed, there are hopeful signs. We are seeing social tipping points in terms of climate action where all over the world people, especially the youth, are demanding action like never before. They are influencing governments, policies are changing, and this effect seems to be accelerating. Action such as this is very encouraging.

Since climate change and other societal problems like poverty, political instability, conflict and crime are often part of the same fundamental problem, things that are good for the climate also tend to be good for nature and for people. Instead of trying to decide which problem to address first, it is possible to address many problems at once. Many responses to climate change can make significant progress towards reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and make the world a better, more equitable place than it was before.

For example, the rapid global deployment of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, can really help low income countries to have energy access (often for the first time), with the enormous economic and general wellbeing benefits these technologies bring. Renewable energy options have become much more affordable, and initial investment pays off fairly soon. (Photo N. Hunter)

Urban solutions, such as green and blue infrastructure (involving vegetation and natural water bodies), electrified public transport, or circular economy principles, also have a huge potential to make cities more livable and healthy places than they have ever been before.

The health and wellbeing benefits of moving away from fossil fuels and fire energy, in terms of air quality and fire hazard, are huge. It is estimated that the financial health benefits of improved air quality alone would exceed the cost of transforming the global economy sufficiently to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.

The many real, proven techniques in conservation agriculture (farming without harming nature or farming ‘with nature’) can simultaneously improve agricultural yields, provide new income sources, reduce hunger and poverty, improve soil and ecosystem quality, support biodiversity, improve water security, restore degraded land, and even return agricultural land to nature.

Rainwater harvesting, by digging pits, can create grazing, even in a semi-arid, degraded landscape, like this farmland near Graaff Reinet. (Photo: Herding Academy).

Agroforestry, reforestation (and even in certain cases, afforestation) also have co-benefits: micro-climate (local humidity and temperature, soil moisture), even macro-climate regulating effects (wind speed, regional rainfall); ecosystem strengthening; greater water and food security; income opportunities; economic benefits, etc. (Photo: Marco Schmidt)

The Paris Agreement commits high income countries to financial support and technology transfer to developing countries, supporting equity and justice at a global level. Hopefully, as the signs and symptoms of climate change get clearer and stronger, and climate action is gaining momentum, low income countries will have a better negotiating power to leverage a fair share in the global economy.

We also see signs of change and hope in the corporate world. While unbridled capitalism may underlie many of the environmental crises we face, it may turn out to be a critical driver of solutions. When it becomes profitable to be ‘green’, even the largest corporations can change. Large energy companies are actively increasing the proportion of renewable sources of energy in their portfolios. Mines, such as gold or copper mines, facing pressure over the environmental impacts of their operations, are increasingly turning to renewable energy, both to improve their public image and worker safety. Public or consumer pressure is driving many of these changes, including the development and uptake of electric vehicles, even in South Africa.

Insurance companies globally are struggling to calculate the changing risk scenarios with increasing climate change, to the point where some risks are either unaffordable or uninsurable. As a result, insurance companies are having to rethink risky, carbon-intensive investments, and find innovative ways to help clients mitigate risk (i.e., adapting to climate risk) – which in some cases, involves taking action against climate change.

Where to from here?

At this point we all need to get on board, if we aren’t already. It is urgent. The sooner and stronger we act, the more disasters can be averted.

And then we also need to spread the word. The last section in the What I can Do booklet encourages us all to pass on the message, petition and vote for change, put pressure on our employers and government to make the right choices, and lead by example.

I know that our family is not yet doing enough, despite all that I know about climate change. At home we are applying various electricity and fuel saving methods, eat a low-meat diet, buy as little ‘stuff’ as possible, and we have got as far as getting a quote for a solar system. Now we need to make the investment, and strive further towards a ‘net-negative’ lifestyle.

I have been pondering the fact that we make countless daily investments of time, energy and finances, for our children’s future, such as their education or health. And yet what investments are we making towards a liveable world for them to inherit? Also, we make investments for our retirement, but do we consider what world we are retiring into?

It is those of us who have the most, and spend the most, who are most responsible for climate change. The more we have, the more we spend, the more we can do to reduce climate change.

It is up to our generation, not the next one.

It is for now, not for later.

It is for our children, not someone else’s.

It’s for right here, not for some other place.

And it can be done, but only if we do it.

The author works as a Science Officer in the Durban office of the IPCC Working Group II Technical Support Unit.