That’s the grim outlook sketched by a monumental new assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns that the planet has just 12 years to reverse global warming.
If global temperatures climb more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels by 2050, heat extremes “never experienced before” by humans could affect 15% of sub-Saharan Africa’s land area in the hot season, causing deaths and threatening farmers’ ability to grow crops, says the IPCC.
For Prof Francois Engelbrecht, chief researcher in climate studies, modelling and environmental health at the CSIR, the problem of adapting to climate change in southern Africa is that it’s already a dry and warm region.
“When such a region becomes drier and warmer, there are few opportunities for adapting to climate change. In particular, the report indicates that crop yield in southern Africa and livestock production is to be negatively affected by climate change at 1.5°C of global warming,” says Engelbrecht, who served as a lead author of the IPCC’s new Special Report on the impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C.
“These impacts will increase further and become more negative under 2°C of warming. Under 3°C of global warming, the viability of livestock production will be directly threatened, and the maize crop will be severely reduced, or may even collapse.”
The report finds that if the world continues to warm at the current rate, global temperatures will climb by 1.5ºC between 2030 and 2052. This will have catastrophic effects on water scarcity, global food production, and almost entirely wipe out global coral reef systems.
“Even if we are successful to restrict global warming to 1.5°C, however, there will be widespread impacts of climate change across the globe, and Africa is particularly vulnerable,” says Engelbrecht.
CSIR research has shown how southern Africa temperatures are rising at about twice the global rate of temperature increase. “This means that a global temperature increase of 5°C implies an increase of about 3°C in southern Africa, and an increase of 2°C globally implies an increase of about 4°C in our region.”
But the report shows there is hope. “It’s still possible for us to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. For this to be achieved, we need to restrict global warming to 1.5°C. This will, however, require an immense worldwide effort and collaboration.”
The report gives the numbers. “We will have to cut emissions of carbon dioxide with 45% by 2030, and by 2050 there should be net zero CO2 emissions by 2050,” he says.
“This poses a tremendous challenge to us as a species, since it means we need to completely revolutionise the way in which we generate energy on the planet. Effectively, we need to move away from fossil fuels as our main source of energy, to alternative forms of energy such renewable forms of energy.”
The IPCC report subsequently finds that climate change will impact on economic growth globally, through damaging weather events and reductions in productivity. “One opportunity for African countries to adapt may be to collaborate more closely, for example, by enhanced schemes to trade food, and transport water and energy between countries,” he says.
Prof Bob Scholes, a systems ecologist at the Global Change Institute at Wits University, explains that South Africa warms at twice the global average. “We have already crossed 1.5ºC, and are close to 2ºC. The world could reach 1.5ºC by as early as 2030, at which point the interior of South Africa will be near 3ºC. This has deeply negative consequences for water supply, crop agriculture, livestock and human well-being.”
While the IPCC report does confirm “what we already suspected, it makes it clear and stark,” Scholes remarks.
David Hallowes, a researcher at non-profit organisation groundWork, Friends of the Earth SA, says the threat to people’s livestock and access to food will increase dramatically at 2ºC. “That includes in South Africa, where over half the people are poor and more people will be tipped into poverty,”
The interaction of climate change and “a market organised for profit” will be devastating - as it was in the drought of 2014/15. “As in that case, much of the pain is hidden as households can afford less as well as less nutritious food,” Hallowes says.
South Africa, says Scholes, is far ahead of projections on the roll-out of renewable energy.
“But at the same time we are committed to two very large coal-fired power stations, which are planned to continue operations for the next 60 years. It is stated policy that further coal-fired power stations are in the offing. This is inconsistent with our Paris Accord goals.”
As Africa’s big emitter, South Africa owes a climate debt to the rest of the continent, adds Hallowes. “The government likes to justify the continuing use of coal on its supposed ‘priority’ for addressing poverty and inequality. But not responding urgently to mitigate climate change is an indication this is not their priority. The report shows that steep reductions are urgently needed now.
“South Africa’s draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2018 does not demonstrate any such urgency. In particular, the forcing in of the two coal IPPs for construction in the early 2020s is unconscionable.”
Robyn Hugo, the programme head for pollution and climate change at the Centre for Environmental Rights, says that not only is South Africa extremely vulnerable to climate change but it’s a major greenhouse gas emitter, with the bulk of these emissions from its coal-based electricity sector.
The IPCC report shows how countries’ Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) - pledges for how they intend to address climate change under the 2015 Paris Agreement - are not on track to limit global warming to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels.
Hugo says South Africa’s peak, plateau and decline trajectory and NDC have been found to be hopelessly inadequate. “In any event, the Paris Agreement requires party countries’ ambitions to become stricter every five years. So even if South Africa were on track with the NDC now, this would not be the case if we were, for example, to build the two new coal-fired power stations independent power producers that the government proposes in the draft IRP.”
These proposed power stations -Thabametsi and Khanyisa - are mired in multiple legal challenges and will be among the most greenhouse gas emission and water-intensive plants in the world.
“Locking South Africa into fossil fuel projects with high emissions for well beyond 2030 is short-sighted and reckless,” says Hugo.
Tasneem Essop, of the National Planning Commission and the Energy Democracy Initiative, says the IPCC report represents an urgent call to action.
“The implications of this report for South Africa are huge. We’re ... in the top 20 of high-emitting countries, as well as being particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This means that we would have to be more ambitious in our actions to cut emissions and invest much more in building climate resilience in the country. We need to do this while addressing our triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment.”
Scholes says there is a need for climate leadership “which speaks in one voice across government departments” and between the private and public sectors and civil society. “We’re already seeing some leading companies take a progressive stand. Standard Bank, for instance, recently announced that it would no longer fund coal projects.”
Happy Khambule, political adviser at Greenpeace Africa, says: “Our government will unfortunately not see this report as important, unless civil society, business and labour stress just how important it is.
“Climate change is a threat to our survival ... to peace, security and social cohesion. We’ve seen that with the water shortages in Cape Town and the Eastern Cape.”