The immense danger and opportunity of climate change

David Le Page
A Sasol plant in Hamburg, Germany. Source: Wikipedia.
David Le Page

There’s an astonishing blind spot that afflicts most of South Africa’s elites and intelligentsia, and indeed, our civilisation. It’s particularly tragic that South Africa, which suffered nearly 10 years of HIV denialism, should now also be afflicted by climate change denial.

If you’ve never been scared witless by climate change, then you clearly just don’t understand it or know enough about it – because the effects of what we are doing to this planet with our unending emissions from coal, gas, oil and deforestation are absolutely terrifying.

When I refer to climate change denial, I’m not referring to the contrarians, attention seekers and paid propagandists for the oil industry who claim that climate change is not happening or that humanity is not responsible. Rather, I refer to the kind of denialism that formally acknowledges that climate change is happening – but then refuses to engage in a genuinely honest assessment of what that actually means. Examine the current motions of South African government policy and big business, such as the approval of shale gas fracking in the Karoo, and it’s hard to believe this is the same country that ten months ago was hosting the annual UN climate conference, COP 17, in Durban, and claiming to take it all seriously.

The brutal truth is that on current trends, human civilisation as we know it might collapse by the end of the 21st century. We are already seeing major climate impacts with just one degree of average global warming. Yet our current emissions path could take us to five degrees of warming by 2100, described by the Hadley Centre of the UK Met Office as ‘catastrophic’, leading to ‘mass extinction, devastating ocean acidification, brutal summer-long heat waves, rapidly rising sea levels, widespread desertification’. There might be 6-10 degrees of warming across South Africa – imagine the impacts on water and agriculture. According to the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), already considered extremely conservative by many scientists, in just the next eight years between 75 and 250 million Africans are projected to be exposed to increased water stress. That is an immense amount of potential hardship and suffering – and that’s just the beginning.

Ocean acidification, caused by increasing amounts of dissolved carbon dioxide in the sea, threatens already depleted fisheries on which a billion people depend for protein. In the last two decades, humanitarian disasters caused by climate have increased by 20%. Insurance companies are paying twice as much for flood damage as they were just 10 years ago. Large parts of Southern Africa are warming at twice the speed of the world as a whole, threatening the region with extensive forced migration.

There’s even a chance that climate change will end up returning the Earth to temperatures closer to those of Venus, measured in hundreds of degrees. This is because climate change is setting in motion various natural cycles, so-called climate feedbacks, such as increased forest fires and the melting of permafrost and submarine methane ice that could greatly accelerate the human influence on climate.

Ignoring climate change is a crime against humanity

The fact is that until our government unveils a serious, science-based plan to reduce our collective carbon emissions to zero, it is complicit in a crime against humanity. Every company that mines, exports or uses coal or gas in South Africa, such as Sasol, Xstrata, BP, Anglo Coal, is complicit in a crime against humanity. Our privileged classes have to learn to consume less and share more: an egalitarian society has become a survival imperative as well as one of social justice.

Jack Lewis (GroundUp, September 19) argues correctly that the high cost of transport fuel in South Africa is an unfair burden on the poor. He proposes various steps to remedy this problem: forcing SASOL to sell its coal-derived synfuel at cost, revising the fuel tax price structure, investing in offshore gas production and handing over swathes of unused land in the former homelands to agricultural corporations for biofuel production.

I have no argument with reducing SASOL’s profitability or possible tax changes. But Lewis’s other arguments ignore several significant problems. He assumes that bringing down the cost of fuel is a good thing – it isn’t necessarily. Fuel derived from fossil sources must be expensive to control our use of it. Keeping transport costs down is indeed desirable, but this has to be done without adding to climate change, food price increases and land distribution problems.

Biofuels: a threat to food production and water security

Unfortunately, one of the solutions Jack proposes for rising fuel costs, biofuels, are extremely problematic.

Biofuel production in many countries has detracted from food production, leading to a situation where we find ourselves prioritising the transport needs of the middle classes over the need of others to eat. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food has called biofuel production a ‘crime against humanity’. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has called them ‘a terrible mistake’, because their production is often highly inefficient, turns food into fuel, and can worsen deforestation and climate change.

The General Household Survey showed that in 2007, 10.6% of adults and 12.2% of children were ‘sometimes or always hungry’ and that was before multiple subsequent food price shocks. It would be a disaster for South Africa, a country where all too many still go hungry, to turn land that could be used for real food production towards fuel production.

The problem with any proposed economic solution in South Africa is that our polarised and unequal economy has a built-in tendency to filter rewards and profits to those who are already rich, and to further exploit those who are already poor and exploited. Arable land in the former homelands that could be used for food production absolutely should not be handed over to foreign capital for fuel production.

Biofuels are often extremely inefficient

People usually don’t realise that it takes energy to access energy. This ratio is called EROI – energy return on investment, the number of energy units that must expended to get energy units in return. The EROI for US oil eighty years ago was around 100, but has declined to 15. For corn-based ethanol in the US, the EROI is close to 1, for Brazilian sugar cane it’s 8. In too many instances, such with the US corn industry, perverse subsidies have created situations where farmers are paid to produce fuel in ways that actually demand more energy than they produce.

What South Africa needs to feed its poor and all of us in the long-term is renewed regional development based on renewable energy (wind, wave and solar) and small-scale agriculture, as per the recommendations of the 400 scientists who collaborated in a massive international assessment of agriculture for development five years ago.

The call for small-scale agriculture in South Africa is all too often taken as a suggestion that blacks should remain forever semi-impoverished peasant farmers. This is not the case at all. Small-scale production remains a vital component of rural economies in much of Europe and Asia. Here in South Africa, there were many successful and prosperous black farmers in the late 19th century, prior to the widespread theft of land by whites under the notorious 1913 Land Act.

The challenge of economic development amidst climate change and resource scarcity

South Africa and other developing countries appear to be in a terrible position. We have a great many citizens who quite reasonably demand a fair share in the prosperity of the privileged. Yet the pressures on Earth’s resources and ecosystems are now so great that if we deliver that fair share of prosperity using fossil fuels and without heed to environmental destruction, we instantly deny it to future generations. It may have become a cliché to say that unsustainable development is stealing from future generations – but it is also undeniably true. We have a Constitution that guarantees intergenerational equity. Using cheap fossil fuels to secure the wellbeing of all our people may appear to be the quickest and simplest route – but it is also a sure route to disaster and a violation of our most basic laws.

Any investment in fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource, is mind-bogglingly short-sighted. They are guaranteed to get ever more expensive because of inherent scarcity (which is why they are so beloved of the most amoral profiteers). They contribute to dangerous climate change. They lock us into the industrial stone age and reduce our international competitiveness. They expose us to the risk of punitive tariffs on our exports because we’re behaving like climate bandits.

Reliance on fossil fuels is a recipe for social disaster

Expanding our use of fossil fuels would also be continuing an economic model that perpetuates many existing evils – a model of economic development based on centralised energy supplies and indulging the extractive industries. But reliance on that model has already made us the most unequal country in the world, given us the migrant labour system, record levels of crime, violence against women, and contributed greatly to the HIV epidemic. Around the world, reliance on fossil fuels is closely associated with corruption and uneven development.

The government’s decision to pursue shale gas fracking in the Karoo is incredibly shortsighted. It has excluded climate experts from the decision-making process. It may be possible to minimise local impacts on water – but it makes absolutely no sense to trust a fragile environment to amoral companies like Shell, guilty of massive human and environmental rights abuses around the world. The government claims shale gas will help us wean ourselves of fossil fuels, but this ignores the opportunity cost – lost investment in renewables. The claim that shale gas contributes less to climate change than coal is controversial at best.

The alternative: renewable energy

The tragedy in South Africa’s continued pandering to the mining and extractive industry elites is that countries that are embracing the renewable energy revolution are doing rather well. They’re protecting their economies against the inevitable future increases in energy costs. They’re building decentralised economies and green jobs.

Is it purely coincidence that the European economy moving fastest towards renewable energy, Germany, is also the strongest? Germany has a fraction of the solar resources of South Africa, yet already sees the price of electricity dropping close to zero in mid-summer. Iceland attributes its swift recovery from the 2007 collapse of its financial sector in part to its strong renewables sector.

Companies like Eskom and Sasol find the renewable energy revolution extremely threatening. They are experts in old energy. They cannot see a place for themselves in the new energy revolution. Renewable energy, which is easily decentralised, threatens their social and economic power as much as it threatens their technocratic power. Little wonder that they have been so resistant to a genuinely ambitious renewable energy strategy.

The challenge for South Africa’s leadership is immense. On the whole, our government has little vision or courage to choose a path very different from those it sees pursued by other governments. Its economic and energy policies seem to be particularly swayed by the terrible examples set by the fading democracies of the US and UK, which have led the neoliberal economic model that has been so disastrous for many countries, including South Africa. We may have discarded direct rule by the colonial powers, but intellectual decolonisation has yet to follow. South African politicians are mostly woefully ignorant of the real dimensions of climate change and of the renewable energy opportunity. They don’t begin to understand that continuing to rape the Earth for short-term gain is morally and economically corrupting, not to mention, as I have shown, extraordinarily dangerous.

If we really want a development path that works for everyone, and not just for entrenched elites in the very short term only, and that maintains a safe planetary environment, then we should follow the outliers – the strong social democracies that are securing the chance of a just and safe future for all their citizens by turning their backs on fossil fuels. Some countries – Ethiopia, Costa Rica, New Zealand – have already chosen to reduce their carbon emissions to zero. For the sake of current and future generations, we should leave our gas and coal in the ground, eject the extractive industry criminals, and persuade or force our elites to consume less and share better.

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