Drought. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Drought. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

We have been warned: there are now only 12 years left for us to stop global warming in its tracks.

And if we aren’t able to keep the warming to a maximum of 1.5ºC since pre-industrial times — we have already hit 1º — we could expect a horror show of extreme heat‚ more disastrous events like floods and droughts‚ and an ecology so out of sorts that daily life could become unbearable.

While an extra 0.5ºC over that limit of 1.5ºC might seem insignificant‚ a shocking report just released by the United Nations shows how hitting a 2ºC rise would spell doom.

At the Paris Agreement in 2015‚ 2ºC was set as the ceiling we should aim to stay under‚ but that has now been changed to 1.5ºC.

The consequences of hitting a 2ºC rise include:

• Days of extreme heat and heat-related deaths would become much more common.

• Hundreds of millions more people would become food insecure.

• Fifty percent more people across the world would be water-stressed.

• Plants and insects are twice as likely to lose 50% of their habitats.

Prepared by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‚ the report says that “urgent and unprecedented” changes are needed to reach the target.

It says risk warnings in earlier reports underestimated damage already done as well as how quickly we are moving towards disaster.

All over the globe‚ stakeholders have been meeting to discuss what should happen next after the 90 authors of the report said they were shocked at seeing what a difference 0.5ºC made.

At the University of Cape Town on Monday night‚ just hours after the report was released‚ a panel discussion was held that focused on the findings‚ as well as the report’s significance for southern Africa.

Harald Winkler‚ director of the Research Energy Centre at UCT‚ said limiting warming to 1.5ºC would require “changes on an unprecedented scale and pace”.

He said: “It is in our own interests to have effective climate action — and all must act. No one is off the hook. We need to avoid emissions while reducing poverty.”

Prof Mark New‚ who heads the African Climate and Development Initiative‚ which hosted the panel‚ said that what was considered a “medium risk” in 2013 is now high risk.

He said the difference between a 1.5ºC rise and a 2ºC rise would have a particularly harsh effect on the mean temperature and rainfall in Southern Africa, which is a “hot spot because it is semi-arid and is water-stressed”.

“Here‚ small changes in temperature can lead to large shifts in water stress.”

The Cape Floristic Region would be at major risk. He said 10% of species would be stressed at 1.5ºC; at 2ºC‚ it doubles to 20%.

Tasneem Essop‚ from the National Planning Commission‚ said the report had “pushed us into an unbelievable need for urgency” as the “impact is going to be unevenly distributed‚ with the poor bearing the burden of climate change impact as it is described in this special report”.

She called for South Africa to reach “zero use of coal by 2050”‚ but said this would be “particularly challenging because of how much we rely on it”. She said one of the keys lay in convincing the labour movement not to “tie their futures to an industry that is going to die”.