OPINION | The ground beneath our feet is shifting when it comes to climate action

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As we mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, some semblance of light on our Covid-dominated horizon comes in the form of promising climate ambition, writes Dr Prabhat Upadhyaya.


There is a growing realisation that we will continue facing crises on a regular basis – some anticipated, others unanticipated; some local, others global; some social, others environmental. Whatever their nature, facing crises demands dealing with trade-offs and getting down to making tough decision-making. Kicking the can down the road for the next generation to clean up our act, is no longer an option.

What follows is an account of 2020 as a bellwether of the new geopolitics of climate change, and where South Africa finds itself in this rapidly changing world.

Just last week, the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres warned that we face a "moment of truth" when it comes to the climate crisis. The speech was significant in its frank acknowledgement that “our planet is broken” and outlined the stakes, severity, and scale of the climate crisis.

The annual Emissions Gap Report released this week further underlined the inadequacy of current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – pledges made by governments under the Paris Agreement. If all unconditional NDCs were to be fully implemented, it would still leave the world on the path to a 3.2 deg C increase in global warming by 2100. As governments prepare to submit their new NDCs in 2021, they need to ramp up their climate action significantly.

Zero emissions target

There have been some notable moves in this direction. Major economies are signalling long-term ambition with concrete timelines. The European Union, Japan and South Korea have made commitments to reach a net zero target by 2050 and China has pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. In the United States, the President-elect Joe Biden has underlined his intent to keep climate ambition and climate action – both walk and talk – on top of his policy agenda by bringing the USA back into the Paris Agreement.

Latest analysis by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) indicates that if all national governments were to meet their 2050 net zero emissions targets, global warming would be as low as 2.1 deg C by 2100 – within striking distance of the 2015 Paris Agreement’s limit of 1.5 deg C. As one veteran climate scientist remarked: “Can anyone afford to miss this wave?”

The UK is certainly paddling fast. It was the first country to declare a climate emergency last year. Since then, many other countries – the most prominent being France, Argentina and Canada – have followed suit.

The UK raised the stakes further last week, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an ambitious target to reduce UK’s emissions by at least 68% by 2030, compared to its 1990 level. As the host of the global climate conference next year, the UK’s announcement has significantly raised expectations for ambitious climate action from other countries. It is no surprise then that the Australian and Brazil, will not be given a speaking slot at this weekend’s climate summit.

Oil and gas exploration

Also last week, the Danish government took a watershed decision to end any new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. The Economist ran a pointed cover story "Making coal history" which celebrated the decline of coal in rich Western countries. And while these reports were still sinking in, there are indications that China’s environment ministry has floated a ban on coal power investment abroad that will also influence its "belt and road" investments. This potential development is crucial for sub-Saharan Africa as there are estimates that Chinese-backed coal power output in Africa could treble before 2060.

All this didn’t happen overnight. Some governments and organisations have come to terms with what businesses and major investment groups have already started factoring into their decision matrix – it is too risky to stay invested in fossil fuels. Last month 47 faith institutions from 21 countries announced their divestment from fossil fuels as a practical response to the climate emergency. Practical – not abstract, not theoretical, not arbitrary, just plain practical.

When it comes to climate risk, even the Church and Capital are on same page. Early this year, the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager, stated in his annual letter to BlackRock’s clients that "climate risk is investment risk" and that "in the near future – and sooner than most anticipate – there will be a significant reallocation of capital". And just as I was writing this paragraph, news came in that New York state’s $226-billion pension fund has pledged to reach net-zero GHG emissions across its portfolio by 2040.

In addition, several companies are aiming to or have already made commitments to net-zero targets. Microsoft, Amazon, Unilever, Uber, Mercedes-Benz, Siemens are among the few which are aiming for net-zero by 2040. Others notable companies include Glencore in mining, HSBC and Morgan Stanley in finance, ArcelorMittal in Steel, OneWorld member airlines, Mott MacDonald in green buildings. The shipping industry with its Getting to Zero Coalition is also looking to get in on the act.

What we are witnessing is a fundamental shift in the norms defining our relationship with the fossil fuel industry. When norms start to shift, policy paradigms start to shift – not in tinkering, incremental little bits but in fundamental, transformative leaps and bounds.

We are on the cusp of what Peter Hall, in his 1993 seminal paper on Policy Paradigms, described as the Third-Order change. In charting the shift in British economic policy from Keynesianism to monetarism in 1970s and 1980s, Hall argued that with this shift in the normative template, there was "a radical shift in the hierarchy of goals guiding policy, the instruments relied on to effect policy, and the settings of those instruments".

Insufficient policies 

Given these developments, is South Africa prepared to catch this wave?

Unfortunately, it’s not looking promising.

The government’s policies and NDCs have been consistently categorised as highly insufficient. In a recent report South Africa was ranked second worst performer amongst the G20 non-OECD countries for its continued support for fossil fuel funding.

In its Low-Emission Development Strategy, it stops short of unequivocally committing to a goal of net zero by 2050. The social partners under NEDLAC have endorsed a social compact that includes a "just transition", but they also stop short of making a clear break from fossil fuel. There are also reports that South Africa will not be making any statement at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020 this weekend.

Given South Africa’s heavy dependence on coal and its high unemployment rate, we know why this hesitancy in upping the pace. But the global investment sentiment is sharply turning against fossil fuels.

Non-state actors urgently need to send a clear, collective signal to the government that they are ready to lead the transition to a net zero economy by 2050. The Alliance for Climate Action  – South Africa, is one such platform where organisations that are willing to drive bold climate action come together. 

Already cities such as Tshwane, Joburg, Ethekwini, Cape Town and prominent South Africans business associations such as Intelligent Transport Society SA, Sustainable Energy Society SA and Green Building Council SA and a number of companies are already its members.  They all are ready to drive climate action in South Africa.

To cut down the jargon, the ground beneath our feet is shifting. Just like being on a treadmill, if we insist on standing still or do not keep up with the pace, then it is just a matter of time before we will come tumbling down.

* Dr Prabhat Upadhyaya is a senior policy analyst with WWF South Africa.


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