Tackling the greatest threat to human survival
The United Nations paints a grim picture of what may happen if we are unsuccessful in our climate change efforts. With average global temperatures increasing beyond 3 °C (on the current trajectory), every ecosystem will suffer the consequences.
Since we all share one planet, these changes threaten our very survival. Once critical members of the planet’s ecosystems go extinct and water sources run dry – there will be no going back.
This situation is so critical that the UN has placed a direct focus on finding solutions to climate change in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) it believes must be achieved by 2030.
That SDG is SDG 13, and it encourages urgent action to combat climate change and its effects.
But how do we achieve this?
The five targets of SDG 13
SDG 13 has five measurable targets which serve as practical guides for countries to combat climate change:
- Strengthen resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related hazards and natural disasters in all countries.
- Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning.
- Improve education, awareness-raising and human and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning.
- Implement the commitment undertaken by developed-country parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to a goal of mobilising jointly $100 billion annually by 2020 from all sources to address the needs of developing countries in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation and fully operationalise the Green Climate Fund through its capitalisation as soon as possible.
- Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in the least developed countries, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalised communities.
Each of these five targets has indicators that have been set to measure the progress towards achieving them. Yet South Africa’s efforts are sadly lacking.
This is worrying when one considers that South Africa is the world’s 12th biggest emitter of carbon dioxide and one of 175 countries that signed the Paris Agreement – a global climate action pledge − which aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by committing to three key goals:
- Limiting the average global temperature rise to below 2 °C
- Keeping a global temperature rise this century to well below 2 °C. The agreement also aims to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change
- Creating consistent and appropriate financial flows for climate-resilient development
How South Africa fares in the war against climate change
Climate change is particularly important in South Africa. Not only are developing countries like ours ‘likely to suffer more from the economic impacts of climate change, as well as being the least able to adapt to new climatic conditions, but temperatures in this part of the world are rising twice as fast as the global average,’ says Tracey Davies, the executive director of Just Share.
Indeed, trends in South Africa’s climate reported in the Third National Communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change also show that South Africa has been warming significantly. The observed rate of warming has been 2 °C per century, or even higher over the western parts of the country, including much of the Western and Northern Cape, and also in the east over Gauteng, Limpopo and the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal; this is in the order of twice the global rate of temperature increase.
But, like many other developing countries, South Africa has the daunting task of balancing accelerating economic growth and transformation with sustainable use of environmental resources and responding to climate change.
Indeed, as a signatory of the Paris Accord, South Africa faces a difficult transition: we are a fossil fuel-reliant country, and we are extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
Yet, says Davies, a ‘transition to a low-carbon economy, if just and properly managed, can go a long way to addressing our country’s many ills, especially poverty, inequality and unemployment. Failure to act, on the other hand, will mean that the impacts of climate change will be even more severely felt by a population less able to adapt to its impacts. This is so important because we have to counter the narrative – dominant in SA at the moment – that taking climate action and addressing poverty, inequality and unemployment are counter to each other rather than part and parcel of the same thing.’
Climate change is about so much more
One of the most dangerous outlooks South Africans could have would be that climate action is not one of the top priorities for the most effective growth in the short and long term. Rather, SDG 13 should be seen as the foundation for tackling inequality, health and wellbeing, decent work and economic growth, innovation – and to be fair, the rest of the SDGs.
Indeed, a study done by Harvard shows that fossil fuel emissions cause one in five premature deaths globally. 2018 alone saw 8,7 million deaths as a result of air pollution. Undoubtedly, South Africa’s stats are higher than the average.
Not only is the lack of decarbonisation creating direct health implications for those in mining, and the communities that surround and survive because of the existence of these mines – estimated at around 10% of the country’s workforce – and their families will soon suffer job insecurity and ultimately losses from the obsolescence of fossil-fuel-based energy.
Four ways you can be part of the solution
Bill Gates, who has been learning about and working with energy and climate change for the past 15 years, has just released his book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster which he says is ‘a plan for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions’. In the book, Gates has included a chapter about what actions individuals can take to move us closer to a zero-carbon future. Some of these actions include using your voice to engage in political action, reducing your home’s emissions, buying an electric car and eating less meat.
Below are some actions that you and your organisation can take to contribute towards reversing climate change.
Reduce your organisation’s carbon tax and increase its renewable energy usage
The Carbon Tax Act is a vessel through which South Africa can contribute to the global effort to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and drive sustainable economic growth. The cost of renewable energy from the sun and wind has dropped dramatically, which makes it a more attractive alternative than ever before. By using renewable energy sources you can decrease your organisation’s carbon tax.
South Africa’s Carbon Tax Act, which places specific levies on greenhouse gases from fuel combustion and industrial processes and emissions, came into effect in June 2019. By 2035, the carbon tax could reduce the country’s emissions by 33% relative to the baseline. Furthermore, South Africa’s recent renewable energy auctions have led to solar and wind prices lower than those of the national utility or from new coal plants. Often regarded as the continent’s clean energy trailblazer, much of what has been learned through South Africa’s renewable energy procurement process can influence similar developments across Africa.
Engage in the political process
The majority of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the larger systems in which we live our daily lives. To change these larger systems, we need to both support and take concerted political action. Engaging in the political process is the most important single step that people from every walk of life can take to help avoid a climate disaster. We need to translate these calls for action into pressure that encourages politicians to make the tough choices and trade-offs necessary to reduce emissions. ‘Whatever other resources you may have, you can always use your voice and your vote to effect change,’ says Gates.
Provide capital to support our economy in becoming climate resilient
In May 2020, National Treasury issued Draft Technical Paper 2020: Financing a Sustainable Economy which outlines the devastating impacts of climate change on South Africa and its financial implications. It provides recommendations for all financial services industry players that will ‘facilitate unlocking access to sustainable finance and the allocation of capital to support a development-focused and climate-resilient economy’. The paper states that there is a R2 trillion opportunity to be unlocked in order to transition to a climate-resilient economy. Every person with an investment portfolio or pension can help drive the shift to a low-carbon economy by demanding that the people who manage their money are integrating environmental, social and governance considerations into their investment decision-making, including directing finance flows out of fossil fuels and towards sustainable, low-carbon initiatives.
Improved reporting and disclosure
Improved reporting and disclosure on climate change will lead to a speedier adoption of measures and more effective actions. This will play a key role in achieving SDG 13.
The saying goes ‘we need to save the world’, but when it comes to climate change, we are mistaken: the world will survive; humans will not. Climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed by everyone and there are clear steps that each one of us can take.
If you are not already on this journey, join SAICA and #SustainableSA as we work in partnership towards a more sustainable, peaceful and prosperous future for everyone. For more about SDG 13, go to http://saicasdg.co.za/sustainable-sa/ for video tips and podcasts about other climate actions you can take.