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Climate action: no more time for debate

The average South African may not be too interested in the latest on climate science - melting ice caps seem a far off problem - but we should be, write Saliem Fakir and Manisha Gulati. 

On 27 September, the IPCC released their latest report (part one of four, with the next section due in March 2014). The trouble is that to the average South African, that means very little. Scientists release reports all the time, after all, and the IPCC reports, in particular, are picked apart to a place where even climate scientists themselves may be forgiven for losing interest.

The IPCC - or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - is the scientific intergovernmental body tasked with evaluating the risk of climate change caused by human activity. It needs no mention here that this group’s work is thorough and one of the most intensive scientific processes at present.

The average South African may not be too interested in the latest on climate science - melting ice caps seem a far off problem - but we should be. Climate change is a local issue as much as a global issue and although many of us live under the assumption that climate change happens at a glacial pace, the hard facts are that the energy systems in place across the planet within the next few years will define the world’s climate change path for generations. As citizens, we have a role to play in informing our Government of our priorities - and a sustainable future for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren must surely rank highly.

To quote the IPCC “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased”.

The report categorically ends any debate as to whether human activity is the main cause of climate change. The science can’t get more definitive than what was presented last Friday. There is no longer any reasonable scientific doubt in this regard, and any reports you may read to the contrary either result from misrepresentation of the science or act on behalf of vested interests.

How hot will it get?

The latest science paints a grim picture and reinforces the 2007 IPCC findings. The most optimistic scenario shows how aggressive action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions could limit temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Achieving this means cutting emissions by an ambitious 10% per decade, however. By contrast, if we carry on as we are, warming above 4°C by 2100 is likely.

Two degrees may sound barmy, but this figure refers to the global average - many locations would see far greater increases. Scientists broadly agree that a 2°C rise is the absolute limit that the planet could endure without global catastrophic consequences, while some scientists have said temperature rise of 4°C would be “incompatible with organized global community”.

Where’s the proof?

The report has put forward some more detailed evidence of how sea levels and ocean acidification are rising today and in future based on various emission scenarios as well as the rapid acceleration of both terrestrial and marine sea ice melting in the last decade compared with previous decades.

If we look at global warming in terms of decades, the three most recent decades have all been warmer than all preceding decades (since 1850). The period covering 1983 - 2012 was very likely the warmest 30-year period in 800 years and likely the warmest of the past 1400 years.

Since 1950, both the atmosphere and the ocean have warmed, the extent and volume of snow and ice have diminished and sea levels have risen. Many of these changes are happening much more quickly than in the past.

The melting of glaciers and ice sheets in the last decade has been several times faster than the melting during the 1990‘s. The area covered by Arctic sea ice has shrunk in every season and every decade since 1979. The climate models predict that with continuing high emissions, we can expect nearly ice-free Arctic summers by 2050.

Sea level rise has accelerated since the mid-19th century. Over the period 1901–2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.19m.

CO2 concentrations have increased by 40% since pre-industrial times, primarily from fossil fuel emissions and secondarily from net land use change emissions. The ocean has absorbed about 30% of the emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide, causing ocean acidification.

Where to from here?

The challenge for South Africa and for all the world’s countries is this: do we have more than a moral obligation to act? Nationally our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is less than 2%, but our per capita carbon intensity is among the world’s highest.

As a nation we have shown strong leadership in the climate policy arena for a long time, but it is now time to make a strong example in terms of infrastructure investment and other economically transformative programmes.

If we cut through the jargon, the essence is this: the world’s energy systems which are heavily reliant on fossil fuels are causing our climate to change. Much of this fossil fuel dependence continues to enjoy significant subsidy. The IPCC’s report is not suggesting that we should leave matters as they are. It does point to the fact that as greenhouse gas emissions grow, we will be entering a critical pathway in which the dynamics of climate variability and change have a high potential of having adverse consequences to civilsation. Each country should undertake the responsibility to transform from carbon intense energy systems to low carbon solutions.

Saliem Fakir is the head of WWF South Africa’s Living Planet Unit and Manisha Gulati is the organisation’s energy economist.  
A polar swims in the water in front of an iceberg.

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