If there was still any doubt in anybody’s mind as to why the weather is going haywire, the last weeks have confirmed once again that we have transitioned from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, with unprecedented changes in weather patterns that are clearly the result of human activity.
Some say that it is not the Anthropocene — it is the Technocene, because technology is currently modifying all the core processes that define Earth system dynamics.
The period between 3 to 6 June has been confirmed as the hottest days on record. Meteorologists have also confirmed that parts of Europe, America and Asia will experience a long, baking-hot summer, way hotter than previously predicted. In Spain, they are even talking about the progressive desertification of the country.
All this comes of course on the back of the recent climate change-induced famine in Madagascar, unusually busy cyclone seasons in the Mozambican channel (Cyclones Kenneth, Idai, Batsirai, Freddy) and a hot summer in 2022 when France was forced to shut down some of its nuclear reactors.
I have not even mentioned the flooding in Bangladesh and Pakistan (2021 and 2022), the long-lasting heat dome that settled over America’s West Coast in 2021 and 2022 and brought scorching temperatures that set all-time record highs, or the spectacular collapse of the Texas electric grid during the February Freeze of 2021. Then of course, there were the Siberian fires before that, Australia’s colossal bushfires of 2019 and 2020…
We are clearly living in different times.
The consequences of climate change are of course multiple and varied. Countries like Canada are hotter and drier than they have ever been as shown by the bushfires that have caused a cloud of smoke that has spread down to most of the north-east coast of the United States of America.
Elsewhere, high temperatures translate to coastal erosion or floods. Mudslides following unprecedented rainfall have claimed thousands of lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo; South Africa, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire have witnessed unprecedented rainfall in recent times.
Climate change can also mean crop failure as we recently witnessed in Namibia, Zimbabwe and the Horn of Africa. Experts are also predicting that wind patterns will also mean more turbulence for air passengers in future.
However, we know by now that there will be no ambitious changes in policies at national and multilateral level so that our children and our children’s children can be spared some of the worst consequences of our irrational behaviour.
There is going to be panic for a few days — like when some farm workers died in the searing heat that scorched the Northern Cape recently — and then we are going to go back to default mode.
There is a kind of pervasive cognitive entrenchment in us that makes it difficult for human beings to dismantle the irrational hegemonic capitalist system in which we operate in favour of policies and habits that are better for the planet and our long-term survival.
We want our cheap trinkets, cheap meat, throwaway fashion, cheap technology, etc, and we want it now, the consequences be damned!
Rising insurance and disaster relief costs
I analysed this behaviour with my former director Jörn-Jan Leidecker on a number of occasions and our conclusion was that human beings would only change their behaviour when climate change started punching massive holes in our pockets. Guess what: that is starting to happen.
In California, the insurer State Farm recently announced that it would stop selling new home insurance policies in the state. State Farm blamed the decision on “historic increases in construction costs outpacing inflation, rapidly growing catastrophe exposure, and a challenging reinsurance market”.
In France, AXA has just published a study which shows that “by 2050, half of fruit-growing areas will be affected by severe or extreme climatic risks (droughts, floods, storms, etc), i.e. twice as many as normal.” AXA is reviewing how it offers insurance policies.
In Germany, the head of the German Insurance Association (Gesamtverband der Deutschen Versicherungswirtschaft – GDV) has demanded a halt to new construction in high-risk flood areas. He argues that climate change must cause a rethink of how and where people build houses.
The recent floods that hit Germany and Belgium cost both insurers and the governments in excess of $100-billion. Damage caused by the 2022 Durban floods, which Santam described as “by far” the largest natural catastrophe in Santam’s history”, cost the company about R3.2-billion. The company paid out more in claims than it collected in premiums, according to information supplied to News24.
The Global North is better equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change. However, for many countries that are still dealing with the legacy of slavery and colonialism and which bear no responsibility for the unprecedented dumping of methane, CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adaptation and mitigation require resources that they do not have.
That is why multilateral processes such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) are so important.
The road to COP28
COP28 in Dubai has been billed as a more technical event, an opportunity to take stock of and implement past decisions rather than adopting more empty promises. The Subsidiary Body (SB) Sessions that were held in Bonn last month showed a glimpse of what global leaders should be looking to accomplish later this year. In no particular order, they are going to be looking closely at: the Global Stocktake, the just energy transition, securing food logistics, protection of forests and the loss and damage fund, among other priorities.
The Global Stocktake
Too many decisions of previous COP events are yet to be fully implemented and that is why many countries in the Global South have completely lost faith in the process. Highly industrialised nations that are responsible for over 90% of all the greenhouse gases that have been dumped into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution just do not want to live up to their historical responsibility.
Developing countries urgently require money and technology for adaptation and mitigation.
At COP15, developed countries pledged to raise $100-billion per annum for climate action in developing countries. This pledge was renewed in Paris a few years later. However, the money is yet to materialise. Developed nations are getting crafty and reporting all kinds of spending in the name of climate action, including for example Japan, which is reporting investments in fossil projects as adaptation and mitigation support. From this nebulous pot, it is claimed that Africa has received about $9-billion.
Let us say that we grant them that. Africa needs at least $50-billion per year by 2050 for adaptation and at least $190-billion per year until 2030 for mitigation, according to the International Monetary Fund. I do not know if you have seen evidence of this kind of money anywhere, but it is not coming in. If anything, it is poor countries, victims of highly industrialised nations’ destructive ways, that are picking up the slack.
The decisions taken at Copenhagen and reaffirmed in Paris were necessary but insufficient steps to achieving global warming limits of 1.5°C. The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) Synthesis Report published by UN Climate Change in February 2021 revealed that commitments were not enough to cap warming at 1.5°C. This is not surprising because it would take long-term Covid-level lockdowns to achieve those targets. It is impossible to do within the current capitalist system.
The New York Times recently revealed that none of the world’s biggest emitters — China, the United States, the European Union and India — have reduced their emissions enough to meet the Paris Agreement goals. The UN Environment Programme (Unep) indicated in the Emissions Gap Report 2022 report published in 2022 that “there is no credible path to 1.5°C in place”.
The report further states that: “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.”
Will COP28 deliver on these priorities? Hard to tell. The Global Stocktake will be interesting to watch.
The just energy transition
Climate change and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have completely upended energy markets and the “powering past coal” and methane agenda of the conference of the parties.
Africa is witnessing a new resource boom with a scramble for oil and gas projects everywhere on the continent. Senegal has started exporting gas from Saint Louis. Namibia has witnessed the construction of an unprecedented number of exploration wells. Oil was recently discovered in the Orange Basin and the Namibian government is very excited about that.
There are massive investments going into Uganda, Nigeria, Algeria, Morocco and especially Mozambique, which has received investments bigger than its entire GDP for a gas project off the coast of Cabo Delgado. After beating off the Isis insurgency in Mozambique (Ansar al-Sunna) with the help of Rwandan and Southern African Development Community (SADC) forces, Total plans to relaunch its activities there in 2024. The lag time between investment decisions and project start means that the numerous projects that are in the pipeline will lock in emissions for at least two or three decades.
It is raining cash in the oil and gas sector — over half a trillion US dollars in fact — and very difficult to see how the countries that are hosting new projects can achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions or even scale back their fossil projects, given the hypocrisy of highly industrialised nations.
A number of African voices, notably outgoing Senegal president Macky Sall and South Africa’s Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe have argued that Africa should be allowed to exploit its resources for its development. They say that any talk of a just energy transition is colonialism of a new kind by countries that used fossil fuels to develop but now want to block others from doing the same.
They have a point: in the absence of the money promised to them in Copenhagen, Paris, Glasgow and elsewhere, what are these countries to do? A lot of oil revenue is stolen but then, how do you go to a citizen of a poor country and tell them to get behind the COP agenda if developed nations are not paying their fair share?
Ten countries/blocs account for over 70% of all global CO2 emissions: China, USA, EU, Russia, India, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Iran and Canada. After a number of blackouts, the Chinese government has approved the construction of more than 200GW of new coal power capacity. India is also expanding its coal capacity. Only Morocco and Gambia are on track to achieve their NDCs. Germany has reopened some lignite mines after making a decision to stop importing oil and gas from Russia.
If developing nations do not get the money and technology that they need to meet their development needs, they will keep turning to fossil fuels as a quick fix.
Securing food logistics
One of the hopes of African leaders, when they attended the Paris Climate Summit in June 2022, was that the flow of wheat and sunflower seed oil would not be interrupted again by the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The war has highlighted Africa’s dependence on Russian and Ukrainian grain.
During the austerity years of the 1990s and 2000s brought about by Structural Adjustment Plans, many countries stopped investing in local subsistence agriculture and instead started importing cheap food from abroad. Today, most of the rice, soybeans, wheat, cooking oil and sugar that is consumed in Africa is imported. If you visit African markets, you will also find a lot of onions, garlic and vegetables from China. Africans can produce these things, but with cheaper alternatives everywhere, producers do not bother anymore.
Disruptions are therefore dangerous and food price inflation caused deadly riots in Africa in 2008 and again in 2010. The 2010 riots almost toppled the Mozambican government.
Africa’s dependency on food imports is unsustainable. In addition to calling for fair and open international markets, COP28 must channel adaptation funding into the promotion of indigenous alternatives.
After all, short value chains play a bigger role in slowing down global warming than the current systems that we have in place now. We must consume what we produce in our communities. We must send a clear signal that it is no longer viable to import tomatoes from Chile, frozen chicken from America, garlic from China and so on.
Protection of forests
Following the struggle of activists in Brazil as well as exposés in international media like the Washington Post and Bloomberg, more people are aware today of the role that beef plays in global warming. Most of the destruction that is happening in the Amazon — but also in Australia — is caused by people who want to clear rangeland and areas for cattle ranches. In the Mekong Delta and other parts of Asia, the clearing is to make way for coffee plantations.
In some countries, protesting logging activity, mining, beef ranches etc can get you killed, and this tragically happened to Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira recently.
Oceans and wetlands are the biggest carbon sinks on earth, followed by the soil and forests. Forests are also home to many indigenous communities and the great diversity of remaining insect and animal life that we have left. For this reason, we must do more to protect our forests.
The final document of COP27 reaffirmed the important role that forests play in our existence. However, money has to go into doing the real work that needs to be done. The Central African Forest Initiative (Cafi) has achieved positive results for the Congo Basin, but this forest in particular requires billions of dollars to fight off poachers, loggers and large-scale commercial farmers.
The loss and damage fund
After many years of fighting, the COP has a third pillar in addition to adaptation and mitigation: loss and damage. Loss and damage refers to the damage and destruction that happens despite adaptation and mitigation due mostly to the anthropogenic activity of highly-industrialised nations since the start of the Industrial Revolution around 1760.
We know who and what has caused global warming. According to the Carbon Brief, “humans have pumped around 2,500bn tonnes of CO2 (GtCO2) into the atmosphere since 1850”. The biggest cumulative polluting nations and communities are, once again, the US, China, the EU, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
Research by Andrew Fanning and Jason Hickel published in Nature Sustainability show that high-carbon countries owe at least $192-trillion to low-emitting nations in compensation for their greenhouse gas pollution. The US alone owes about $80-trillion and fossil fuel firms owe about $209-billion per year.
For now, nobody is holding the polluting industries and nations accountable. Instead, it is Small Island Nations that are spending a fortune to deal with the consequences of these countries’ and industries’ actions.
The Loss and Damage Fund adopted at COP27 will try to repair this historical damage. However, looking at how COP failed to mobilise the $200-billion pledge, one has to wonder when loss and damage decisions will translate to real resources in vulnerable nations.
With the dispersal of global value chains, new corporate laws have to be written to hold corporations accountable for their actions everywhere, and not just in the Global North. DM