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Sink or swim, or burn: The whole world is inextricably...

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Sink or swim, or burn: The whole world is inextricably linked as global heating intensifies

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Sasha Planting is a seasoned financial journalist and Associate Business Editor at Daily Maverick Business.

So Unit 4 of the Medupi power station has blown up. Repairing the 800MW generator will cost an estimated R1.5-billion to R2-billion and will take two years. Following so shortly after the insurrection in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and the extensive hack of Transnet’s IT systems, one can’t help looking for saboteurs under the debris. But suggesting that engineers and other skilled workers would put life and limb on the line to cause a hydrogen explosion is as extreme as former public enterprises minister Alec Erwin’s suggestion in 2006 that the loose bolt that damaged a Koeberg generator was an act of sabotage.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

But there is one coincidence that we should not ignore: the explosion that ripped through one unit of the world’s fourth-biggest coal-fired power plant did so the day before the release of the heavily anticipated and undeniably influential sixth report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It lays out more starkly than ever before the reality of climate change. In a nutshell, the 4,000-page report tells us what everyone but the climate denialists knows already: global heating is happening.

It’s caused by greenhouse gas emissions (the ones we humans create) and the impacts are bad. Very bad. In some ways, the message has not changed since the IPCC began reporting in 1990. In other ways, this report is profoundly different. The language and terminology are strident and scientists stood together to prevent any intransigent government from vetoing or watering down any of their proposals. The result is that the summary of the report, a concise 42 pages, has been agreed to by almost every government on the planet.

What is also notable about the report is the clarity of the science. There are more observations, longer periods of measurement, more comprehensive models, all of which ratchet up the degree of confidence in the science. Scientists have connected the dots, as Pravin Gordhan liked to say, on climate change and extreme weather events for policymakers.

It is now possible to say, without any doubt, that a particular extreme weather event was caused by climate change and would not have occurred in the absence of human warming of the planet. And there is no shortage of extreme weather; one just needs to look back over the past two months — from drought and fires in southern Europe, Russia and North America to flooding in western Europe, Africa and Asia. In California, firefighters are fighting the second-worst fire in history, while in Europe smoke from wildfires has reached the North Pole, a first in recorded history, according to US space agency Nasa.

The timeframe for change is shortening. Global temperatures will have risen by 1.5°C (from a 1990 baseline) by the decade of the 2030s. This points vehemently to the need to halve emissions by 2030.

Bringing the science closer to home, the report points out that, relative to the late 20th century, the annual mean temperature over Africa is projected to rise faster than the global average, with the increase likely to exceed 4°C unless carbon emissions are halted. This will bring another kind of hell to many regions in Africa.

In southern Africa enhanced warming is projected to result in a reduction in average rainfall across the region. Cape Town gets a special mention (thanks @nickhedley): the Western Cape is reliant on specific cold front systems to deliver rainfall to the region and these are weakening. The result is that the temperatures will become hotter and the area drier in the decades ahead, and more prone to extreme weather. The context in which the report has been written and released has also changed. It’s not just about science, politics, policies and economics. It’s about ethics. The youth climate movement has changed this conversation profoundly. It took our children to protest in the streets to open our eyes to the reality of climate change. Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, notes that this creates a deep ethical quandary for the world’s leadership: we are destroying our planet and those with the least role in creating the problem – future generations and developing countries – will pay the highest price. And we cannot pretend we did not know. The impact is so obvious that we are seeing it in real time on our TVs.  

So how bad will it get before leaders act?

While every individual and every business has a role to play in mitigating climate change, the buck stops with governments. As individuals, we can’t put in place subsidies, block fossil fuel infrastructure or tax carbon. And while every government has a responsibility to act, the wealthiest nations have a responsibility – as yet not really acknowledged – to contribute to, and support the decarbonisation efforts of developing countries. After all, centuries of dirty energy were used to build their economies.

The report has also been published at a strategic moment, coming as it does ahead of COP26, regarded as the most important climate talks since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Countries have been asked to come forward with new commitments to reduce their carbon output. Commitments are good, but now is the time for action, not promises. So, Mr Mantashe, given what we know, is R2-billion to repair Medupi really the best use of taxpayer monies? DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Good question. Financially it would still appear to be more financially viable for the repair. But there are some other items to factor in. There is still massive outstanding expenditure for the emissions equipment at Medupi. Medupi will also have been designed for a life of 30 years, but is unlikely to run that long. As carbon taxes rise around the world, our industries’ exports are going to be penalised because they are using high carbon electricity in their processes.

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