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Opinionista

Listen to the children: Last chance to grab the opportunities of urgent climate action

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Melissa Fourie is the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights and a member of the Presidential Climate Commission.

On 15 March 2019, spurred on by Greta Thunberg’s global FridaysForFuture movement, young people all over the world – including in Cape Town and Pretoria – are marching to the political centres to demand action on climate change. Will it change anything? Well, it really should.

A few weeks ago, my son invited me to join him in a presentation to his class at school on why it was important for South Africa to move away from coal-based electricity to renewable energy.

When we got to the standard “greenhouse gases from coal-fired power generation cause climate change” slide with pictures of drought, forest fires, melting Arctic sea ice, floods and storms – the stuff that hardly raises an eyebrow among jaded adults these days – I suddenly looked back to see shock and fear on the faces of a group of 25 eight and nine-year-old school children. And in that moment I could see, through their eyes, that this future we are hurtling towards is absolutely terrifying. And it is this generation who will have to deal with the devastating consequences of the climate change adults show no intention of trying to prevent.

If you haven’t heard this by now, pay attention: In October 2018 the United National International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – generally criticised for not being alarmist enough – told the world that we had about 12 years to take the necessary action to keep the increase in average global temperatures below 1.5°C since pre-industrial times. This may not impress you – on an ordinary day, we hardly notice a change of 1.5°C in temperature. But our planet’s super responsive and complex ecosystems do notice, and it is not good.

Even an increase of 1.5°C, which now looks increasingly ambitious, will have dramatically detrimental impacts for South Africa and its people, putting at risk water and food security, biodiversity, human health and economic development. Beyond 1.5°C, even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Moreover, we are talking about average global temperatures – CSIR research has shown how southern Africa temperatures are rising at about twice the global rate of temperature increase. Here, we are already almost at 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

If you’re not struck with fear yet, hear this: if we carry on with business as usual, we are on track for at least 3°C increase, even on current emissions reductions commitments. South Africa’s own climate commitments assume that global average temperature increase of 2°C translates to an increase of up to 4°C for South Africa by the end of the century; the IPCC says that, if global temperatures climb more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2050, heat extremes “never experienced before” by humans could affect 15% of sub-Saharan Africa’s land area in the hot season, causing deaths and threatening farmers’ ability to grow crops, says the IPCC. If you’re concerned about refugees now, imagine the fate of climate refugees as 15% of sub-Saharan Africa becomes uncultivatable, and unlivable.

Last year, it took a Swedish teenager to call out the inaction of Swedish and European leaders on climate. In addition to demanding immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, Greta Thunberg talks about climate justice, and how the consequences of climate change will land inequitably on developing countries and poor people across the globe, as well as on the youth of today.

On 15 March 2019, spurred on by Thunberg’s global FridaysForFuture movement, young people all over the world – including in Cape Town and Pretoria – are marching to the political centres to demand action on climate change. Will it change anything? Well, it really should.

Here in South Africa, our President and our government talk about climate change, but continue to authorise and build new coal power plants. They fail to take enforcement action against those polluting our air and our water – natural resources already under threat from climate change, and without which we cannot survive. Our government is still sitting on a tepid Climate Change Bill – not even in Parliament yet – that doesn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently, doesn’t require polluters to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions from individual facilities, and has pathetic, inconsequential penalties for violations.

Ironically, urgent climate action poses huge opportunities for South Africa. For one, taking action on climate has been shown to have far-reaching positive health consequences in a country that struggles with health care. Right now, health impacts from Eskom’s air pollution alone are costing people in South Africa – individuals and the state – more than R30-billion per year.

For another, imagine how a credible and assertive coal phase-out plan, coupled with a just transition plan, will be perceived by international investors and rating agencies: A forward-looking plan that supports new renewable energy industries in previously coal-affected areas; that provides financial support for former coal workers; that compels mining companies to comply with their rehabilitation obligations with job-rich methods; that protects and rehabilitates water catchments, water infrastructure and other essential services; that supports local empowerment through social and municipal ownership of renewable energy generation – these are all activities that stimulate local economic development while buffering local workers and communities from the effects of the coal phase-out.

On Friday, we ask the leaders of this beloved country to think into the future, and listen to the voices of children and young adults – here in South Africa, in sub-Saharan Africa, and all over the developing world. We can let catastrophic climate change happen to us, our planet and our children and all the next generations, or we can grasp the opportunity offered by climate action to leap South Africa into a more advanced, more resilient, more just and more equitable future. DM

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