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Climate crisis: Critical issues for Team SA to raise at the upcoming COP26


James Reeler is a land and climate expert with WWF South Africa.

Next month’s COP26 in Glasgow is finally upon us, after nearly two years of waiting — but what is the best we can hope for?

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has met more frequently than any of the other Earth Summit pacts, and yet we still find ourselves up against the wall in the struggle to save humanity.

Yes, that sounds hyperbolic, as if we were strapping up for some Tolkienesque struggle with the dark forces arrayed against humanity. However, the truth is more prosaic, and in some ways far scarier.

The climate threat to humanity is real, existential and unprecedented. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that we will surpass the dangerous benchmark of 1.5°C by mid-century in all scenarios and will only be able to claw our way back from the abyss through concerted removal of greenhouse gases in the latter part of the century.

More challenging is the fact that there is no external enemy here, just our own global economic structures and consumption — and our unwillingness as a society to change our ways. In many respects, this is a much harder task than mythical battles between good and evil, because we have to address our own unspoken desires, complacency and disregard for the faceless others that fall outside our remit.

Meetings like the upcoming COP26 are essentially political bunfights, with science supposedly sitting in the driving seat, but in reality relegated to the back room trying to pass notes under the door. The tensions implicit in determining who has the most to lose or gain, who will pay and how much, who will be the first to act and whether holding out is better for the country will dominate, despite the urgency of the problem.

As with our own South African climate policy — and especially the understanding of Mineral and Energy Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe and certain of our heavy-emitting companies — the repeated call for “pragmatism”, without analysis of what is really “pragmatic”, threatens real action. Such “pragmatism” is typically guided by poor understanding of the implications of one side of the coin, and while there is scope for latitude and uncertainty in scientific predictions at least these are well-quantified when compared with estimates of economic and social outcomes.

Notwithstanding the real, local threat of increased frequency and severity of droughts and extreme weather events in an already water-stressed nation, where does the “pragmatism” of job losses stand in the face of global human tragedy? It’s certainly not negligible — ethics and science dictate that climate action (both mitigative and adaptive) will have to become the cornerstone of future developmental policy — and there are millions of jobs to be had in the transition.

What then should Team SA be prioritising for this crucial COP? Four issues are key.

  1. Speak with one voice

President Cyril Ramaphosa has been clear and solid on the need for decarbonisation of the economy, the commitment to a just transition, and the need for more urgent action. This has been evident in the wide-ranging stakeholder consultations run by the Presidential Climate Commission.

Nevertheless, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy has carved out space for unneeded natural gas as a “bridging” fuel. Given that driving climate action is her remit and the existential threat should be clear to her as daylight, this is problematic.

More problematic still is that, even while climate envoys were in the country to discuss the allocation of $5-billion in finance to help SA decarbonise, the minerals-energy complex represented by Mantashe was touting the need for more coal, more gas, and the potential of costly and largely unfeasible mitigation actions like carbon capture and storage.

This Janus-like duality hardly inspires confidence when SA preaches that other nations should take the problem seriously, or tries to secure finance to help us make the transition to a low-carbon economy. As we go into the COP, it is important that SA communicates the nationally determined trajectory clearly, in one voice, or we will undermine our negotiating position.

  1. Hold firm on finance for adaptation, mitigation, loss and damage

Creecy says receiving finance is critical to SA’s adaptation and mitigation plans, and she is right that the country could reasonably expect the developed world to help finance the transition. Indeed, finance is likely to be the bone of contention at this COP. Where we fail to mitigate, we must adapt, and if we cannot adapt to the impacts, then those responsible should pick up the bill.

The Just Transition process is both an opportunity to build a better and more equitable SA, and a risk that current inequities will be further entrenched and solidified. There are strong parallels within SA and on the global stage — those with historic responsibility and capability to deal with climate change have a moral and ethical responsibility to help the rest of society make the transition and improve their wellbeing.

For the COP, this means that the developed nations must make a clear and enhanced commitment of finance (not just concessional, but also grants) for developing nations, just as within SA we need to be clear that just transition means that the poor cannot and will not foot the bill for the deeds of the rich.

  1. Take the moral high ground

SA should highlight the extent of the nation’s internal commitment, and despite our not-quite-adequate Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) target, we should be clear about the net-zero by 2050 commitment that we are working towards.

WWF and other social actors have repeatedly called for the government’s ambition to delineate what we are prepared to do alone and what will need additional finance, because our country does have a responsibility to address the global emissions for which we are responsible as a country.

The Alliance for Climate Action is a group of businesses pushing for more climate ambition internally and externally, and represents the high-water mark of private sector ambition in SA. Civil society and the young are also mobilising to demand accountability in our climate targets. It is invaluable to have the private sector and sub-national actors acting in support of climate action, but we need to see this reflected firmly on the global stage. By saying “we will do this regardless”, SA can effectively take the high road, and push the developed nations to come to the party.

  1. We want to see a net-zero carbon roadmap

To keep climate change under 1.5°C by the end of the century, the global community must have reduced anthropogenic climate drivers to zero no later than 2050.

The increased number of net-zero commitments from countries, municipalities and companies over the past year is heartening, and if actually achieved, opens the door to limiting climate change to under 2°C. However, a commitment alone is insufficient — we need to hash out what this really means in terms of short-term action, timelines, greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions and removal mechanisms.

Reducing the drivers of climate change — namely burning fossil fuels and the conversion of natural systems — is the most essential component for reaching that target. This is because there are real physical limits to the other side of the net-zero equation — natural systems can only remove so much, and the likelihood of large-scale physical removal of carbon dioxide is low.

To put it into context, SA is currently spending R570-million to build a facility that will (by 2030) be able to remove 50,000 tonnes of CO2 a year from flue gas and sequester it underground. Avoiding the emissions from Medupi alone would require 600 such installations! I hope Mantashe’s pragmatism has not missed that this amounts to R35bn — give or take.

The net-zero roadmap therefore needs to be hammered out, providing a clear-sighted trajectory that includes both reductions in emissions and a realistic assessment of what (and how) removals will be feasible.

Our world is already 1.1˚C warmer than pre-industrial times, and with the global ravages of wildfires, hurricanes and floods we are finally beginning to get a sense of what lies in store for us if we allow runaway global warming to happen.

This COP will set the tone for the next five years of this crucial decade in humanity’s global decarbonisation potential. If we do not obtain a firm, financed commitment to draw down emissions now, we will likely have closed the window on a 1.5 °C world, and committed ourselves to an almost uninhabitable future.

The battle lines for COP are drawn, with all countries (that are able to send delegates) taking their national interests to the table. But right now is the time to realise that this battle of good and evil is not between nations, or against the dark forces of Sauron… it is between our own short-sighted self-interest and our better selves.

History teaches us that often humanity can be its own worst enemy. Let’s hope that in the next few weeks we remember how to be Samwise Gamgee, not just Gollum.


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