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Young African Magazine

What can we do about the climate report? A climate justice researcher weighs in

The recently released Climate Report makes for worrying reading. But what can we do? Do individual actions count, and how can we contribute to big actions? Climate researcher Alex Lenferna sheds some light on what can be done.

Published 15 August 2021

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On the 9th of August, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on the state of the climate crisis. The world’s foremost body on climate science issued what many are calling a “code red” for humanity.

The report made clear that climate change is no longer a future threat, but is with us here and now. Proving the report’s point in real time, it was released amidst a global onslaught of devastating wildfires, floods, droughts, famine and ecosystem damage fueled and intensified by climate change.

The report also showed that we have delayed action too long and so are locked into increasingly catastrophic climate change. The question that remains is how bad we will let it get. To avoid some of the worst, most devastating impacts, we will need to rapidly transform our economies, not in ten years time, but starting yesterday.

We are in a race against time, where every ton of climate pollution matters. So, every action counts. But small actions count a little, while big actions count a lot. So while making individual lifestyle changes matters, especially for the rich, they only matter a little. What we most need to be doing is collectively organising for deep and rapid structural, technological and societal changes.

Following this line of logic, here in South Africa, the Climate Justice Coalition has a campaign to transform the biggest climate polluter on the African continent, our power utility Eskom. The coalition’s Green New Eskom campaign is pushing for a rapid and just transition to a more socially owned renewable energy future.

While Eskom is starting to move towards renewable energy, like many corporations and governments they are simply moving too slowly. Eskom talks of distant targets of reaching net zero by 2050. That includes the possibility of buying carbon offsets to compensate for potentially still burning coal into the second half of this century. Such a slow timeline does not align with what the science demands.

As this report by Climate Analytics makes clear, South Africa as one of the world’s biggest climate polluters must move much faster to be consistent with its fair share of keeping global warming to the vital target of 1.5°C. That requires that the energy sector phase out coal by 2033 and be fully decarbonised by 2035-2040. Young South Africans whose futures are increasingly being stolen by climate change are calling for even faster action of 100% renewables by 2030.

What our young people, justice, and the latest science demand is that we move much faster. Across the globe, we must transform our economies, from power, transportation, agriculture, buildings and industry. In every sector of our entire society we will need to rapidly rein in pollution and build instead a zero carbon future. That might sound like a daunting task, but it is also one of our greatest opportunities to build a more prosperous future.

If the world takes this transformation imperative seriously, it could, for example, be one of the greatest engines for job creation. For example, if we take just a third of what governments currently use to subsidise polluting coal, oil and gas, and invest that instead in clean industrialisation, we could create hundreds of millions of jobs, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

An earlier 2018 IPCC report made clear that if we take the actions needed to keep warming to 1.5C and do so in a way that centres justice, that provides us with our best chance to eradicate poverty and ensure sustainable development. What the latest IPCC report made clear though, is that the opportunity to do so is rapidly slipping out of our hands. Whether we will allow it to slip away altogether remains up to us.

Don’t buy the lines of fear mongers that tell us it is too late to do anything, or the mininsformation of climate downplayers, who tell us that we still have lots of time left. Our window for change is still open but every moment of delay locks in more climate destabilisation and devastation. Because the window for change is so small, there is no moderate path to success left. We need deep and radical change.

The next major global moment to demand radical change is the call by young people for a Global Climate Strike on September 24th. Here in South Africa, civil society is responding by focusing our energies on the biggest obstacle to change, the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, which is trying to lock in a future fuelled by polluting, expensive, and corrupt coal, oil and gas, taking us in exactly the opposite direction of where the science says we need to go.

As UN secretary general António Guterres declared, “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet. There must be no new coal plants built after 2021. Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy.”

The report, however, won’t do that by itself. It is up to us to stand against corporations and governments who deny the urgency of the climate crisis, and who threaten to condemn our collective future to deepening devastation. There are no saviours coming. At this historic juncture, the science makes clear that we need everyone to put their shoulders to the wheel of collective change.

Alex Lenferna works as a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org and serves as secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition. He is a Mandela Rhodes and Fulbright scholar who holds a PhD focused on climate and energy justice from the University of Washington.

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