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Major climate catastrophes in store for South Africa - latest IPCC report

Published Mar 3, 2022

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The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released on Monday, 28 February. Eclipsed by the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict, the report painted a bleak picture for our planet if we fail to act soon.

In a nutshell, the climate is warming at an alarming rate, faster than most plants and animals' ability to adapt. Yes, humans will inevitably be able to ride out the impending storm but at what cost?

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Representing South Africa, a team of eight climate scientists, researchers and volunteers worked late into the night for months sifting through piles of data in order to prepare the new IPCC report. I was fortunate enough to be able to speak to one of them, Dr Christopher Trisos.

Scientists volunteer their own time for the IPCC. Hundreds of scientists worked tens of thousands of hours over three years to complete this report, often late into the night and early morning.

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“It was tough, but the authors always stayed committed to the work.

“This dedication to the report by hundreds of scientists working for tens of thousands of hours shows how massive a problem climate change is and how important and urgent it is to act within this decade to secure a safe and liveable future for people and nature on Earth; the stakes have never been higher,” Trisos says.

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Trisos is the director of the Climate Risk Lab at the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town.

His research maps climate change risks to people and ecosystems, and combines insights from environmental and social sciences to understand how we can adapt to climate change risks. Trisos has also consulted on climate change risks for the World Bank.

According to Trisos, South Africa does not have a specific threshold of warming which is considered safe. Clear scientific evidence suggests that any increase, even by a fraction of a degree, will bring increased risk and widespread negative impacts.

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Dr Christopher Trisos, senior researcher at the African Climate and Development Initiative, University of Cape Town.

“We are now at 1.1C global warming,” says Trisos, “and South Africa has already experienced loss and damage from climate change. For example, the reduced rainfall that caused the Cape Town drought was three times more likely because of human-induced climate change.”

The drought had huge negative impacts on business and livelihoods in Cape Town. Recent studies also suggest that human-induced climate change was responsible for almost 44% of heat-related deaths in South Africa since 1991.

Trisos is blunt, climate projections predict that our planet will more than likely reach and surpass the 1.5°C threshold within the next two decades.

“At 1.5°C of global warming drought frequency and duration is projected to increase over large parts of Southern Africa. By 1.5C global warming wheat yields in southern Africa are projected to decline by over 50%, even when implementing adaptation options. Increases in the population at risk of malaria are projected to increase sharply by 1.5°C global warming,” says Trisos.

By 2°C global warming unprecedented extreme droughts are projected to emerge in Southern Africa. There will also be more heat waves in the ocean and in lakes. Between 7 and 18% of species could go extinct across Africa. Under rapid warming scenarios by 2050 Cape Town could face damages of R7.5 billion and Durban could have damages of R9 billion.

There are large benefits to limiting warming to lower levels. One estimate suggests that GDP per capita in most African countries will be 10-20% higher by 2080-2100 if global warming is kept to 1.5C instead of 2C.

There is still a glimmer of hope.

Trisos says “the science is unequivocal; rapid and deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are required this decade to hold global warming as low as possible and avoid some of the worst risks. This includes rapid and deep emissions cuts in South Africa where we rely a lot on highly polluting coal for most of our electricity; a transition to renewable energy is required to reduce risks from global warming.”

Trisos adds that in order to reduce risks from climate change, the accelerated implementation of adaptation actions is required. This requires increased investment in education so that people understand climate change and the associated risks and more funding for research to better understand how we can adapt.

It also involves rethinking how we develop our cities. Current trends in urban development are placing more people and assets at risk, City Planning has to take a long view that considers future climate change.

“Next, adopting ecosystem-based approaches such as South Africa’s working for water program that removes alien invasive trees from river catchments to enhance water security can make a very important contribution,” concludes Trisos.

La’eeqa Martin, International Volunteers Coordinator and one of two South Africans selected to a part of the coordinating team at Open Dialogues on Climate Change International, says, ”the new report only reaffirms what we already know - the impacts of climate change are being felt, especially regions and population groups most vulnerable to them.

“But, now we have increased confidence in the extremity of these impacts and the scale over which they will act. We are reminded of the narrow window of opportunity that we can operate within.

“It is easy to take the latest report and view it as a glass half empty situation and difficult to carry on in the hopes that it can and will be refilled.

“Some areas of adaptation are inaccessible to us now due to the irreversibility of a number of climate change effects, but this does not mean that we cannot act in other areas. This does not mean that we cannot strive towards reversing the damage caused by us. This does not mean that we cannot strive towards sustainable development for all.”

With regards to South African mitigation strategies, Martin says “it is important to prioritise people over profit, to actively commit to decarbonisation strategies and to ensure an effective just transition pathway for the country.”

“I do know that the SA Presidential Climate Commission is expected to put forward their Just Transition work this year so I look forward to it and hope that it is truly inclusive of vulnerable groups and sees them as actors and agents of systemic change, not just beneficiaries.”

Let's play our part not just to beat the negative effects of a warming climate but also to save this beautiful planet we call home.

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