South Africa

Our Burning Planet

Climate realpolitik: South Africa’s ‘secret’ and ‘confidential’ slide to the wrong side of history

So, how much time have we got? Maybe a bit more than Bowie’s five years… but probably not much more. (Image: Adobe Stock)

In the last week of June 2019 and the first week of July, across three cities in Europe, the politics and the science of climate crisis were clashing in a game for immeasurably high stakes. While Daily Maverick was in Lausanne with some of the world’s leading climate scientists, over in Vienna the secretary-general of OPEC was fudging the link between fossil fuels and global heating. And the week before in Bonn, at the UN climate talks, the South African delegation was holding a document that sold out the entire country.

I. The reluctant scientist

The feasibility, in the end, depends on how society accepts the consequences of certain decisions.”

So said Dr Hoesung Lee, chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in response to the opening question from the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh. It was the afternoon of Wednesday 3 July 2019, the venue was the convention centre at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, and the question came straight at it: Was it feasible, as per the call in the IPCC special report of October 2018, that humanity could limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and thereby keep the fabric of modern civilisation intact?

Dr Lee, who had reportedly won the most influential job in climate science because of his modesty and discretion, wasn’t committing either way. He was talking about “pathways” and “various options” and the “distributional aspect of policy change”. There was nothing concrete in his response, mainly because he was following IPCC protocol to the letter — the intergovernmental panel, created by the United Nations in 1988, had been established to remain “neutral, policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive”.

And yet back and forth the discussion went, with Ghosh trying to corner Dr Lee, trying to insist that the IPCC chief was “being polite,” and Dr Lee, indeed, politely evading. Only many excruciating minutes after it became clear that he had lost the battle did Ghosh call time on the interrogation.

Okay, I’m not sure whether that’s a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’,” he said, “but let’s move on.”

To Daily Maverick at least, the exchange felt like an act. Aside from the fact that Dr Lee was contractually obliged to keep schtum, the answer was now painfully obvious.

For one thing, on 1 July 2019, less than 48 hours before the event, Nature magazine had released an eight-author report stating that the world’s entire remaining carbon budget had already been blown. The audience at the convention centre in Lausanne, comprised mostly of science journalists, would have been familiar with the maths: The IPCC had set a global emissions ceiling of 580 gigatons of CO2 if the 1.5°C target was to be achieved, but the Nature paper had pegged “committed emissions from existing and proposed energy infrastructure” at 846 gigatons.

For another thing, in late June 2019, at the UN climate talks in Bonn, an alliance of oil-producing nations — including the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Australia — had attempted to “erase the science” in the abovementioned IPCC report. Saudi Arabia in particular had led the challenge against the consensus, demanding that the Bonn text disregard the 6,000 scientific references of 91 authors from 40 countries.

By any account, it was a defiantly ecocidal move. Running from second to 16th in the world in terms of carbon emissions, the burning of fossil fuels in these four countries had been verifiably linked to a sizeable chunk of global heating. Their refutation of the IPCC special report meant it was highly unlikely that human beings would be able to limit the temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, let alone the Holy Grail of 1.5°C.

Even if we keep the average temperature rise to 1.5°C,” the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States had written in the Financial Times on the closing day of the talks, “we will see brutal damage to coral reefs, global crop failure, sea level rises locked in for centuries, and significant economic impacts.”

The piece had opened with what every attendee at Lausanne’s World Conference of Science Journalists knew to be true:

The world is at a tipping point. We are at a moment in history where we can and will go one of two ways: towards climate disaster or a safer planet for all.”

A choice, it seemed, that may have been the reason behind Pallab Ghosh’s show — because there on stage before us, in the person of the non-committal IPCC chief, was the living expression of the fact that science had done its job. Clearly, Dr Lee was not going to save us. It was up to the statesmen and the politicians, as motivated by the activists and the press, to act on the verified data.

II. The secret document

If they were about anything, the UN climate talks in Bonn were about precisely this. Held over a 10-day period beginning on 17 June 2019, the intent was all in the title of the relevant breakaway group: the 50th session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA). Two days prior to kick-off, the SBSTA leadership offered the following remark:

Since the first meeting [of the SBSTA in 1995], concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory — as the Keeling curve shows — have increased from just over 359 parts per million to as high as 415 ppm in recent weeks.”

Given that the news had been so widely and effectively disseminated, it was hardly necessary to explain what the milestone implied. Even a publication as non-technical as Rolling Stone had noted that the last time the planet was at 415 ppm, human beings had yet to evolve, beech trees grew near the South Pole, there was no Greenland ice sheet and the seas were up to 25 metres higher.

In recognition of such chilling details, the vast majority of the 185 countries in Bonn would recommit themselves to the IPCC report — specifically, the parts that demonstrated how 1.5°C was within reach if carbon emissions could be slashed 45% by 2030 and hit net zero by 2050. The political pushback against the Saudi cabal would be driven by the small island states, with strong support from most of the nations of Latin America and Africa.

And where would South Africa stand?

On a tip-off that our 33-member delegation intended to “not explicitly link” its pledges to the science in the IPCC report, Daily Maverick made a few calls. Without breaking much of a sweat, we were able to obtain a document marked “SECRET” in caps at the top and “Confidential” in a faint diagonal line across each of the 11 pages.

The letterhead was that of the Department of Environmental Affairs, as the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries was called before President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet announcement of 29 May 2019 (understandably, the stationery had yet to catch up). The header was framed as South Africa’s “position” for SBSTA 50, and page 3 was where the IPCC report was listed as an action item. The following appeared under the column for “desired outcomes”:

Consideration of the Special Report with a view to strengthening scientific knowledge on the 1.5°C goal, including in the context of the preparation of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report and the implementation of the Convention and the Paris Agreement.

Developed countries should take the lead in ensuring that we achieve the global goal of staying below global warming of 1.5°C.”

By Daily Maverick’s reading, our government was still “considering” whether the consensus of 91 international climate scientists, as determined by the assessment of 6,000 peer-reviewed papers over a three-year period, was a strong enough basis for action. Our elected leaders would therefore wait and see what it said in the reports and talk-shops to come. And anyway, even if the 1.5°C target did prove watertight, they would leave it to developed (richer) nations to do the honourable thing.

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries was provided an opportunity to comment on Daily Maverick’s analysis, but declined to respond. Whatever their spokesperson might have told us, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that nowhere in the secret document was there any whiff of a reduction target for emissions.

This from a country whose subsidies to the coal industry had just been confirmed as the fourth-largest in the G20, a country whose annual carbon emissions were 70 million tons higher than the United Kingdom’s (which, on 12 June 2019, had committed to the IPCC’s net zero target by 2050), a country whose president was about to become the African Union’s head honcho in charge of climate change.

It was all a little bit scary. But then maybe that was thanks to our country’s scary circle of friends.

III. The enemy of our enemy

On Tuesday 2 July 2019, the day before Daily Maverick was treated to Dr Lee’s performance in Lausanne, the secretary-general of OPEC — the organisation of 14 states that accounts for 80% of the world’s oil reserves — gave an interview in Vienna. Climate activists and their “unscientific” claims were “perhaps the greatest threat to [the oil industry] going forward,” said Mohammed Barkindo to a journalist from AFP.

Civil society is being misled to believe oil is the cause of climate change,” he went on.

It was war-talk, and it was directed mainly at the 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg, whose army of teenage followers had been demonstrating across Europe’s capitals for most of the northern hemisphere summer. Oil industry analysts were appalled, noting that Thunberg was the one person on Earth that Barkindo did not want to pick a fight with. But the battle lines had been drawn, and attacks on the scientific consensus were no longer confined to behind-the-scenes campaigns funded by the oil majors. Barkindo was now telling the press out of his own mouth.

As were the Saudis, the Iranians, the Australians and President Donald Trump of the US. The concerted pushback against the double-whammy of Thunberg and the IPCC had properly begun in December 2018 at COP24 in Poland, where Russia and Kuwait had joined the Saudis and the US in refusing to “welcome” the special report.

The line from the report that conceivably irked them the most was the one that called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. The science, in other words, was demanding a shift in the balance of power.

Oil from Saudi Arabia, natural gas from Russia, coal from South Africa — to assume that the interests of the world’s fossil fuel exporters weren’t coalescing around a central theme would have been to live in a world where climate disasters weren’t happening at the rate of one a week. But according to a special representative of the UN secretary-general, speaking on 7 July 2019, this was the precisely the rate at which they were now happening, even if most of the disasters were going unnoticed by the NGO community and the press.

And with Moody’s Analytics predicting that climate collapse would cost the world $69-trillion by 2100, the threat was now firmly in the realm of the economic. Released in June 2019, the Moody’s report had remarkably singled out Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — in that very order — for an extra dose of economic hardship.

This, of course, was the BRICS bloc — a group of nations collectively responsible for about 42% (by 2015 estimations) of the planet’s carbon emissions. The bad news for the billions of human beings in these five countries was that if the BRICS leaders were serious about mitigating the coming economic blows, their plans had so far gone no further than the alternate reality of the bloc’s publicity machine.

In the actual world, BRICS loot was being funnelled into a smorgasbord of fossil fuel projects. In April 2019, as Daily Maverick reported, the bloc’s New Development Bank (NDB) had granted a $480-million loan for the completion of Medupi, a project that South African finance minister Tito Mboweni had dubbed “clean technology” — even though it would up the carbon footprint of one of the largest and most expensive coal-fired power plants on the planet.

Similarly, in September 2018, the NDB had granted $300-million to Sibur, the Russian petrochemicals giant. Once again, the spin of the Russians and of the bank itself was that the money was for “environmental protection” — and yet the self-same NDB press material had crooned that the loan would help to “increase the export capacity of Russia’s petrochemicals sector.”

The list went on. When it came to China and India, the double-speak was so rife as to hardly bear mentioning; in Brazil, the Bolsanaro regime wasn’t even bothering to pretend.

These, then, were South Africa’s friends. It was against this background that the “secret” and “confidential” memo of the South African delegation in Bonn needed to be read. Evidently, our country’s support for the scientific consensus could in no way be assured.

Which left us where?

The comforting thing was that it left us in exactly the same position as the rest of the world. On the afternoon of 3 July at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, when Pallab Ghosh opened the event to comments and questions from the floor, the first to speak was Sir Bob Watson, the former chair of the IPCC and the current chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES, which in May 2019 had released its own earth-shattering report.

I would be slightly more blunt than Dr Lee,” Sir Bob began. “I think the chances of hitting 1.5°C are basically zero. The report was very good, it did a good technical analysis, a good economic analysis, but if you look around the world at what’s happening socio-politically, we’re going backwards in some countries. Like in the USA, or Brazil with its increase in deforestation.

I think the chances of making a 2°C world are also fairly low. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation, and the numbers were confirmed by the IPCC. We will probably go beyond 1.5°C as early as the 2030s… and we potentially go past 2°C in around 2060.”

As an atmospheric scientist who’d played a central role in linking CFCs to the hole in the ozone layer back in the 1980s, Sir Bob had to be believed. Thanks in no small part to him, that problem was soon fixed. But this one, which he framed as the “twin threats” of global heating and biodiversity loss, was incomparably larger.

It demanded a “doubling and re-doubling” of efforts, he said. And despite the prognosis, because of the prognosis, he was going at it for all he was worth. DM


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