If greenhouse gas emissions are not cut drastically by 2030, humanity will have little chance of limiting the impact of climate change as the 21st century progresses, putting the Earth on course for mass extinction, which humans are unlikely to survive.
Earth Day, on Friday 22 April, calls attention to the urgent need for the world to “wean itself off fossil fuels”, says Stellenbosch Business School senior lecturer in strategy and sustainability, Dr Jako Volschenk.
The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that even if global warming, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from human activity, is limited to 1.5°C-2°C, food production and economic growth will be reduced, while inequality and poverty increase, environmental diversity declines and, ultimately, human disease and death rates rise.
Southern Africa is already highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as an already warm and dry region is projected to become even warmer and drier, with warming in the interior of the region increasing at twice the global rate.
“As humanity, we are gradually cooking ourselves, and yet we continue to add more heat.
“There is a popular belief that a frog put in moderately warm water that is gradually heated to boiling point will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. This is false, however, and the frog will in fact jump out of the pot when the water gets too hot.
“As humans, we do not have the option of jumping off the planet, nor do we seem to realise that the water is getting too hot,” Dr Volschenk said.
As average temperatures get hotter, the likelihood of extreme weather events also increases substantially, and “apart from the risks of catastrophic damage to infrastructure, these extreme weather events are associated with diseases like diarrhea, malaria and even liver and kidney failure”.
“The recent devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal, and the many consequences that we will see over the next weeks and months, are a case in point.” he said.
Dr Volschenk said that the IPCC report had shown that even if all the policies written by governments across the world to cut carbon emissions had been fully implemented, the world would still warm by 3.2°C this century.
“However, the report also shows that limiting the temperature rise to 1.5°C is possible and financially viable, but it will require massive changes to energy production, manufacturing, transport and consumption patterns. Rapid cuts in emissions will be required in the next three years so that we reach peak emissions by 2025 that then fall drastically to reach net-zero by the middle of the century,” he said.
Greater investment now in climate change mitigation, cutting greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce global warming, means there will be less need for investment in adaptation measures in the future – changes in behaviour, systems such as business and agriculture and ways of living to cope with the impact of climate change.
However, Dr Volschenk said the scope for mitigation was limited and the need for cutting emissions urgent.
“The world has to date been unable to turn around the trend in carbon emissions. The amount of carbon dioxide that we have emitted in the last decade is the same amount that is now left for us to emit if we are to stay under the crucial 1.5°C threshold,” he said.
In order to wean the world off fossil fuels as fast as possible without collapsing economies, the pricing of energy needs to be corrected to take into account the impact cost.
“Adding the future cost of today’s emissions means that fossil fuel is far more expensive than what we currently pay Eskom for coal power or what we pay at the petrol station, even without the impact of the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the shift to renewable energy needs to speed up along with a switch to electric vehicles – as even when charged by coal-based energy, electric vehicles have a lower lifetime carbon footprint than traditional internal combustion engine-powered vehicles.”
“Local authorities should require single passenger travellers to switch to motorcycles or lift clubs, and provide dedicated bicycle lanes and improved public transport, which would also reduce traffic congestion,” he added.
The food system is another aspect of society that needs immediate change.
“Climate change has partly been driven by our booming population, with the world’s population doubling in the last fifty years. In the same period, meat consumption has tripled. A vegetarian diet has half the carbon footprint of a meat-based diet and if that argument is not convincing enough, eating less meat is also good for the millions of animals we slaughter every year,” Dr Volschenk noted.
On any given day, there are three farm animals for every human on earth, and an estimated 50 billion chickens are slaughtered every year, with agriculture responsible for 10-12% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Reducing and re-purposing food waste is another solution to reducing the impact of food production on global warming and climate change, and addressing the disconnect between hunger and food waste, he indicated.
In South Africa in 2021, 10 million adults and 2.8 million children experienced hunger in the past week, while the country wastes 10.3 million tons of food per year, he noted.
“Our food waste represents more than a third of local food production, as well as a loss of the water and energy used in its production, while food sent to landfill generates methane gases that contribute to global warming.”
“We need to be much more mindful of what we eat, where it comes from, how it is produced, and be much more conscious of avoiding food waste,” he said.
He said that among the ways to reduce food wastage are methods like drying, canning and freezing foods to prolong shelf-life.
“Innovations in farm-to-fork production and consumption need to advance further, he said, and initiatives by retailers to reduce food waste – better demand forecasting and supply chain management, improving cold chains, increasing donations of surplus edible but beyond-dated food, and managing organic waste to reduce contribution to landfill – should also be intensified.”
“It is said that leaders take people where they want to go, while great leaders take them where they don’t want to go, but need to. What we need now to reverse climate change is for all of us to become the great leaders that we need,” he said.