South Africa is the world’s 13th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that are causing human-induced global climate change, Parliament’s portfolio committee on water and environmental affairs has heard.

Dr Peter Johnston, of UCT’s Climate Analysis Group, told the committee this week that China had recently overtaken the US as the world leader in greenhouse gas emissions.

But on a per capita basis, which was more meaningful at the level of political decision-making, South Africa was in 10th place – well ahead of China, which came in 16th, and behind Australia at No 1 and the US second.

And he pointed out that South Africa also had the dubious honour of hosting the largest single-point emitter of carbon dioxide on the planet – “probably in the universe” – which was the Sasol 2 Synfuels facility at Secunda.

Johnston and fellow climate scientist, Dr Guy Midgley, of the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), were briefing the committee during its deliberations on the development of a new national climate change response policy, released as a draft green paper for public comment last year.

A draft white paper is likely to be presented to the cabinet in May or June, which, if accepted, will become government policy.

Explaining why South Africa had to be involved in the debate about climate change, Johnston said: “We are already in the field and we’ve been called on to bat.”

There was no uncertainty about the science behind the greenhouse effect that causes global warming, he told the committee.

“Global warming is the truth, there is no question about global warming. The question is: ‘What does global warming lead to?’”

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Midgley, who supports the South African delegation during negotiations at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and who is the lead author of several chapters in the influential report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said it was scientifically “well established” that human behaviour was changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, which was resulting in climate change.

“What’s not well established is how these changes may play out in various parts of the globe,” he said.

He warned the committee that during its public hearings in the coming month, there might well be some “iniquitous” people who would try to convince members that there was no climate change problem.

However, the “really critical” aspect to understand was the “human-induced” element of this phenomenon, which was largely the result of burning huge quantities of extremely powerful fossil fuels derived from plants that existed millions of years ago.

“(These fuels) are like crack cocaine in energy terms – that’s why we’re so addicted to them,” Midgley said.

The rate of global warming was increasing and, more recently, was increasing faster.

Eleven of the past 12 years were the warmest on record – and possibly the warmest in 1 000 years, Midgley said

. - Daily News