OPINION: What SA can do to aid the fight against climate change

Andree Boehling

While South Africa’s politicians, experts and the public discuss the country’s draft electricity plan (IRP 2018), new scientific evidence on climate change presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this week in Korea clearly shows that far more ambition for reductions in CO2 emissions is needed, if the world wants to avoid unprecedented impacts and irreversible damage to our climate. 

All planetary alarms are already on red, with “just” 1°C of warming above pre-industrial levels: both poles are melting at an incredible rate, temperature records are being broken around the world, apocalyptic wildfires are raging on scales not seen before.

At the moment current targets and commitments made globally still leave us on track to double emissions by 2030 and head for well above 3°C of warming. 

For South Africa, this could mean a temperature rise of nearly up to 6°C as the country is impacted twice as much as the global average. 

Even 1.5°C could result in irreversible impacts such as destabilising Greenland and Antarctic ice shields, the destruction of 90% of warm water corals, and severe problems for marine life, the Arctic and vulnerable populations. 

South Africa recently faced one of the most serious droughts and water crises in its recent history. These are brutal consequences for South Africa's poor people, who in particular would suffer as the threat of food and water shortages increase. This country, therefore, should have a pronounced interest in achieving the Paris goal, as it is a pure question of survival.

It can easily seem like a hopeless situation. However, there is still hope. The next few years could be the most important that we have ever seen, in terms of acting in time to avoid runaway climate change. We must reduce the risks of droughts, extreme heat, storms, biodiversity loss and poverty.

According to the IPCC, it is still possible to achieve 1.5°C, if countries decide to come up with bold and impactful actions now. However, it won’t come easily. The use of fossil fuels (such as coal, oil and gas) needs to be radically reduced by 2030: coal by 67%, oil by 50% and gas by 33%. Even developing countries need to increase their ambitions before 2020. This also means that South Africa needs to further enhance its climate ambition and must finalise the country’s electricity plan in line with the latest available science on climate change. 

'Equity and fairness' no longer an excuse

The principles of equity and fairness are no reason for any responsible government to increase emissions. In the case of South Africa, the government can no longer increase emissions until the year 2025. 

The principles of equity relate to responsibilities and a country’s capabilities to address its contribution to climate. With that in mind, industrialised countries of the world must have faster and greater emission reductions, whilst providing means of implementation for developing country parties to fulfil their common responsibility. 

The developing countries have a common responsibility to address climate change, as developing countries such as South Africa are the most impacted. But at the same time, we must remember that South Africa is a country with a high responsibility due to its huge coal dependence.  

For South Africa’s electricity plan, a target of 1.5°C clearly means that no more new coal should be added to the grid – and in fact, the last two units of Kusile should be cancelled – artificial constraints on renewable energy must be removed, and an advanced plan to speed up the decommissioning of existing ancient and massively polluting coal-fired power stations is needed. 

Instead of reducing coal capacity from 39 to 34 gigawatts by 2030 – a relatively small reduction at a time when much more ambition is needed – the IRP should at least aim to halve coal capacity by 2030. While this may seem like a mammoth task, in other industrial countries, coal must be phased out completely by 2030. If we take the principles of equity into account countries like Germany must have a coal phase-out completed by 2030. A German coal commission has already been set up with the mission to come up with a phase-out plan and date by the end of this year.

Transformation plan needed for transition to new energy system

Of course, in a country where nearly 90% of the electricity comes from coal along with major coal exports, this raises the questions of possible negative economic impacts of such a transformation in terms of jobs, economic stability and equality. A transition from a coal reliant energy system might entail initial social and economic costs for people and families in coal regions such as Mpumalanga and Limpopo. 

We need to develop a transformation plan together with workers in the coal industry, that reflects all social costs and impacts and provides policy guidance to deal with them - either in the form of social compensation for job losses or with economic stimulus programmes to create new jobs for the affected regions. 

These ‘Just Transition’ processes are already in place in many other countries and we should learn from them. But the message of the IPCC report is also promising here: the transformation of the electricity sector to a 100% renewable energy supply is feasible, economically viable and will lead to even more jobs in the electricity sector.

We have seen how dangerous climate change can be for South Africa. The country recently faced one of the most serious droughts and water crises in its history as the City of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay approached “Day Zero” and as the Highveld was without water for 2016. Research indicates that climate change tripled the likelihood of the extreme drought that pushed Cape Town towards Day Zero, and we are likely to see many more extreme weather events. 

The launch of the IPCC special report has now become another moment of truth for whether we limit warming to 1.5°C or not?! We are running out of such moments and time. The road ahead will be challenging, but the good news is that it can be easier than the road we are currently on. 

- Andree Boehling is Greenpeace Africa Climate & Energy Campaigner. He recently worked at Greenpeace Germany and from 2001 till 2006, he was Political Advisor on Energy & Environmental Policy for the Parliamentarian group of the Green Party. He holds a degree in Political Science from the Free University of Berlin. Follow us on Twitter: @GreenpeaceAfric.

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