DAVID LE PAGE: Climate emergency is far worse than acknowledged
The usual divergence between policy and reality will be worse this year at COP27
In less than a week the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) begins, farcically hosted by the human rights-abusing Egyptian regime. The usual divergence between COP policy and reality will be worse this year, because in the past two months extraordinary new scientific evidence of climate instability has emerged. Things are far worse than we feared.
The emerging new evidence makes many COP conventions and the “net zero by 2050” narrative hopelessly outdated. Climate scientists have long feared that humanity’s carbon emissions will destabilise key natural systems — climate “tipping points” — which will accelerate global warming.
The evidence now suggests some of these processes may already have commenced. The polar and Greenland ice sheets are deteriorating, and permafrost is thawing in many places. The Amazon, until recently one of the world’s great carbon sinks, has become a net carbon emitter. Some polar temperatures this year have been 40°C higher than seasonal averages — the equivalent of a 65°C day in Johannesburg in October.
Also scary is a “disturbing recent surge in atmospheric methane”. Methane is a 25 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It usually only remains in the atmosphere for 10 years, but natural mechanisms that remove it are breaking down. Methane is the main constituent of fossil (“natural”) gas, which our energy ministry wants to increase in our national energy mix (“Our ambitious climate goals must be backed up by solid action”, October 31). But widespread infrastructural leaks negate fossil gas’s supposed advantages over coal. “Climate responses” that include gas are madness. They combine the supposed ambition to capture and store underground one greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide — while pumping out from underground another that is far more potent.
Many climate scientists are now so desperate to get this message past the fossil fuel shills and political soap operas dominating politics and media that in the US and Europe they are turning to civil disobedience
Climate breakdown, we’re learning, is not slow, predictable, linear and reversible, but accelerating, messy, often unpredicted and substantially irreversible. Many climate scientists are now so desperate to get this message past the fossil fuel shills and political soap operas dominating politics and media that in the US and Europe they are turning to civil disobedience (Google “scientist rebellion”).
A proper climate response demands ending some outdated convictions. Care for the environment is not a luxury. The environment is the foundation for the economy. Adam Smith observed that in agriculture “Nature labours along with man; and though her labour costs no expense its produce has its value as well as that of the most expensive workmen.” Last year the World Bank said, “Preserving nature and maintaining its services are critical for economic growth,” pointing to potential annual global savings of $2.7-trillion.
Economic growth is not necessarily good in and of itself; it is a poor measure of prosperity. Yes, we need some growth — of sustainable energy, housing and transport, education, real food and healthcare. But growth policies that celebrate deadly industries because the headline numbers look good mostly channel profits to elites. Economic policies for all must focus on outcomes.
Another essential concept for escaping the climate crisis is understanding uneconomic growth. Balance sheets and national accounts do not capture the full costs of climate degradation, pollution and resource depletion — the so-called externalities — so we live under the illusion that we are growing richer even as we destroy the natural “capital” on which we depend. Development based on fossil fuels comes at such great cost to the environment, climate, socioeconomic stability and human health that it has long failed to deliver net economic benefit.
We need to stop thinking that as an African country we benefit from delaying our transition away from fossil fuels. Our “right” to continue using fossil fuels became irrelevant once solar became the world’s cheapest source of electricity. We’re fighting for the keys to a Ford Pinto when we can go for a Tesla. It’s a public policy disaster as self-defeating as the UK’s lemming-like plunge out of the EU.
BEE via coal and gas has been a con job. In reality, fossil fuels are a recipe for mass black immiseration. It is awful that people were sold a Ford Pinto, and they really deserved better. But pretending now that the Pinto is a Tesla is becoming undignified.
Having ditched our illusions, we must act. Economies must be retooled to drop fossil fuels as fast as possible, make agriculture regenerative, preserve and rebuild ecologies, and adopt a circular economy. Institutionally, these changes demand stronger democracy, devoted attention to meeting basic rights, and ending extreme inequality. A just transition is important but would be unnecessary if we already took proper care of our people.
Profits from fossil fuels must be outlawed. UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres has called for a global windfall tax on fossil fuel companies. But taxes are insufficient. Fossil fuel companies that are not cutting carbon meaningfully right now — and few are — must be nationalised (as the US did with General Motors and Chrysler in 2008) or put into caretaker administration while they are decarbonised or wound down.
We need greater investment in public transport. The maximum permissible size of engines in passenger vehicles must be limited. Speed limits should be reduced to 100km/h (as they were during the 1970s energy crisis).
What about social consensus? A 2021 survey showed only 20% of South Africans understand climate change is caused by human pollution. But democratically legitimate climate policy demands full public understanding. Government must mount an ambitious programme of public education on climate change.
Equally, the silence of social leaders must end. Why are Constitutional Court judges, top sportspeople and business figures, influencers and opposition politicians not speaking up on the greatest crisis of our time? The death of Desmond Tutu has left a void where there should be many voices of conscience. Raymond Zondo, John Steenhuisen, Julius Malema, Adrian Gore, Thuli Madonsela and others: please speak up for climate justice.
Only one university in SA, the University of Cape Town, has had the vision to divest from fossil fuels (following a campaign I helped lead). But divestment is a minimum first step. Our vice-chancellors and CEOs should be leading climate marches. University auditoriums and churches should be the site of mass public lectures explaining the science of climate change. Academics should lead a wave of public climate education.
The same urgency and commitment that caused unprecedented public funding towards Covid-19 is needed for climate action. Global climate finance is woefully inadequate, yet even a small proportion of what was spent on Covid-19 could get us on track for meeting the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement. SA must support the visionary “Bridgetown agenda” of Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley for financial instruments to muster the annual trillions of dollars needed to support the climate transition.
The science is extremely clear: to have even a chance of averting the worst effects of global warming, we must rapidly eliminate fossil fuels. This means global emission cuts of more than 50% by 2030. “Net zero by 2050” is too slow to avoid triggering tipping points. There is no “remaining carbon budget”.
If you’re in any position of influence please take determined action on climate. If you dispute our analysis, get in touch or call one of our many great climate scientists or civil society climate leaders for dialogue. Honourable energy minister Gwede Mantashe, we’d gladly present these facts in detail to you and colleagues if invited.
• Le Page is co-ordinator of Fossil Free SA and co-author of the FFSA Climate Reporting Guide.
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