Coverage of COP17- Climate Change and popular struggles

Climate change, the science and climate justice : Defining issues of the century

, par Pambazuka, TWN Africa , Nzuri Hewa

Climate change is already exacting a toll on populations and species around the world. Responses to the phenomenon must, however, be based not solely on economics but also science and the equity issue, writes Hewa Nzuri.

The climate change meeting in Durban in December is crucial to the future not just of Africans, but of people around the world. Climate justice and climate change are the defining issues of this century.

The challenge of climate change is one that has arisen because of the current dominant system of social, political and economic organisation, whether we call it capitalism or by any other name.

Africa is the most threatened continent when it comes to climate change. At risk are the lives and livelihoods of at least one billion people.

The challenge is two-fold : To prevent what Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the ambassador of Sudan and the former G77 chair of the climate negotiations, referred to as the incineration of Africa from climate change and to ensure that the continent’s responses to climate change, including the climate negotiations, result in an outcome that is fair, just and sustainable.

The negotiations are important because they are defining the allocation of one of the Earth’s last great common resources. Virtually all common resources including land, the minerals, the trees and fish have been allocated.

These negotiations are about allocating one remaining global commons – the Earth’s atmospheric space, the climate system, the capacity of the atmosphere, the oceans and the forests to absorb greenhouse gasses (GHGs). This is a system that humans interact with every day. At stake in the negotiations is whether the benefits of that system are allocated to the rich countries or the poor countries, to large multinational corporations or to the people, to present or to future generations.

The response to climate change has to address certain realities. There are realities that are defined by atmospheric physics and chemistry – it is impossible to negotiate with Mother Nature. There are realities that are defined by present and expected levels of technology and there are challenges that are defined by the political economy of the present socio-economic and political system.

In terms of the science, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said that Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change. All of Africa is likely to warm during this century in all seasons and in all sub-regions.

Crucially, the level of warming in Africa will be around 1.5 times the global average because of its large land mass. If the world warms by two degrees Celsius, Africa will warm by three degrees Celsius. This is crucial because it defines the impact on Africa and African communities.

While it is understood that Africa is the most threatened continent, it is also important to note that the threats are significantly greater than has been previously understood and significantly greater than what was set out in the IPCC fourth assessment report, which is the basis of current negotiations and the basis upon which many African governments are setting their demands.

Some of the most recent research coming out of Stanford University, based on over 20,000 crop trials, demonstrates that, based on historical data and not on models or projections, a temperature rise of a single degree Celsius will cause losses of 65 per cent of the present maize growing region in Africa, and more than 75 per cent of those areas are expected to lose at least 20 per cent of their productivity from a mere one degree Celsius temperature rise.

So, on one hand, in the Cancun outcome countries talked about a two degrees Celsius goal (which in real terms means three degrees Celsius of warming in Africa), and on the other hand, these studies from Stanford show that one degree warming will result in 20 per cent losses continentally of maize production. In effect, at risk are massive levels of food insecurity and all of the associated problems. Africa is already beginning to see these effects – in the Horn of Africa.

The IPCC’s fourth assessment report vastly underestimated the extent of sea-level rise because the UN body merely summarised the existing science. In fact, the necessary research has not yet been undertaken. The IPCC has thus underestimated the rate of ice and glacier loss. As temperatures increases, sea level rises. The IPCC projection for 2100 is around one metre, but given the historical record, the world can expect over the longer-term 20-30 meters of sea level rise. This is consistent with the more recent studies on the loss of ice in the Arctic region. This will re-write the map of the world.

Already there is very substantial warming in Africa. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), in a study produced this year on what happened in 2010 around the world, temperatures in Africa last year were 1.29 degrees Celsius above the long-term average. The sub-Saharan area was over two degrees Celsius warmer, which was the largest warming ever outside of the polar region.

East Africa, which had never had warming above one degree Celsius of their long-term average, has had it for eight years in a row, contributing to the ongoing drought. So the impacts are already being felt in Africa.

Projected level of warming

According to the UNEP 2011 emissions report, which evaluates the low and high-end pledges made at the Copenhagen meeting, the world is on course for 2.5 to five degrees Celsius of warming – a catastrophic level of warming for Africa.

Five degrees Celsius of warming globally would be around 7.5 degrees Celsius of warming in Africa and, as noted earlier, a one degree Celsius of warming historically resulted in 20 per cent crop losses for 75 per cent of maize growing regions.

The UNEP report assumes that those pledges are implemented, but what is clearly happening is that there are efforts by various industrial and lobby groups, particularly in the USA, Europe and elsewhere, seeking to undermine those pledges. In the USA in particular, the powerful oil, energy, metals, coal, fertiliser and other industries are undermining effective climate legislation. But if those pledges are not kept, the world may not only warm 2.5 to five degrees Celsius, but based on the present trajectory if left unabated, the Earth is heading for about 900 to 1,000 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Based on the historical record of the Earth’s warming, global temperatures as a result of similar levels of atmospheric concentrations were around 16 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

What would this mean for present civilisation ? A high degree of warming would fundamentally re-write the maps. It would disrupt the circulation of energy, air and water around the planet. Countries would likely be lashed by serious storms, droughts and fires. In a world more than 5 degrees Celsius warmer, many would likely have to live in small fortified settlements – a radical change in the organisation of civilisation.

So, keeping temperatures down is not merely an effort to address the needs of farmers and workers, although it is fundamentally about those needs, but it is also about stabilising the Earth’s climate and preventing serious runaway climate change.

This means that a platform that addresses the latest scientific evidence is urgently needed. However, at the moment the world is in the middle of a very serious contesting in the negotiations between those who want a science-based approach to climate negotiations (demanded mainly by developing countries) and those who want a ‘pledge and review system’ (demanded by developed countries) in which each country would do what it thinks it can do and not what is necessary to save Earth.

In the climate change negotiations there are talks about adaptation and mitigation – the need to reduce GHG emissions and find ways to live with the climate change that is already in the system.

One of the main concerns is about the levels of impact on Africa. What are the various impacts going to be on different sub-regions and different sectors ? This depends in large part on the level of warming regionally in Africa. As stated, Africa will warm around 1.5 times more than the global level of warming. So if Africa agrees in the negotiations to two degrees Celsius, the continent is effectively agreeing to three degrees Celsius in Africa, and that has implications for food security, for each of the different sectors where people work, for ecosystems and so forth.

The continent must also be worried about its piece of the pie. There are implications of the mitigation burden on Africa, particularly in each of the industrial sectors where people work and earn their livelihoods, in transportation, in energy production, in the building and construction of infrastructure, waste management and forestry, among others. In effect, if Africa is on less than two tonnes per capita, how much will it have to reduce and what are the implications for transportation or energy sectors ? There are questions that have not been answered yet by many African governments.

The level of mitigation action by developing countries is defined by two things : It is defined by the level of global mitigation action that is needed to get to a certain temperature, less the amount that the rich countries contribute. That is to say, if there is a global pie and the rich countries take a certain slice, how much is left for Africa and what does that mean in terms of Africa’s own development pathway in each of the economic sectors where people live and work ? If the pieces of this puzzle don’t fit together then there are serious impacts for industrial development and there are serious impacts in terms of safety and stability of the climate and the effects thereof on infrastructure, health, agriculture and all the other issues. It has to add up as a matter of atmospheric physics and chemistry and it has to add up as a matter of economics.

The other two key pieces are finance and technology, and the level of finance and technology that Africa needs is determined in part by what they agree (explicitly or implicitly) to do in terms of the share of the effort that is allocated (i.e. mitigation).

If African countries are going to reduce emissions in the production of energy, shift from fossil fuel to other non-fossil fuel-based energy, what are the costs of that and what are the implications for the continent’s development and for workers and others relying on those energy sources ? Again, if African countries are not going to follow the path that was cheap, which was the path that the rich countries followed, and are forced to follow some other path because the path developed countries followed is blocked, how much will it cost and who bears those costs ?

The same goes for adaptation : What technologies do African countries need to address the impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius or two or five degrees Celsius of warming and what level of finance do they need to address the impacts, by compensating people for the loss of their farms or the loss of their property ? Any set of demands made by African governments, by civil society and by the justice movement must, in this sense, reflect the physics and the chemistry and the economics and the politics underlying this set of relations.

Then there is a whole set of questions around how countries make this transition in a manner that is just, fair and equitable. How do countries make this transition in a way that empowers people instead of polluters, people instead of capital, how to fashion the transition in a way that creates new opportunities for participation and democratic representation ?

All of these elements are important in terms of the global carbon budget and the emissions trajectory that is needed to secure a safe climate for Africa and for the rest of the world and the way that the world community shares that burden. Since the Industrial Revolution, there has been a steady increase in emissions. Those emissions have come vastly from the developed countries to produce roads, schools, buildings, the things that many developing countries have yet to build.

Global emissions have to peak and they have to come down very fast. The problem is that most of that historical budget for emissions was taken by the rich countries. They have taken a large amount and left the developing countries a small amount to get to the total global carbon budget amount up until this point.

What’s their plan ? The Annex 1 countries, the developed countries, are planning a budget that they say is for two degrees Celsius globally, but it’s not actually a two degree Celsius budget and it is not a two degree Celsius budget for Africa. It is a three or four degree Celsius budget for Africa. The level of reductions they are calling for by 2050 gives a very low probability of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Secondly, the Annex 1 countries are planning to cut their emissions rather slowly, much slower than needed to save the planet. They want a soft landing for their businesses, so for example, the Europeans say, ‘Well, we’ll cut by 30 per cent.’ So what is happening is that Annex 1 countries are going to take a large amount of the remaining global atmospheric space. They are allocating it to themselves and their corporations, leaving almost nothing to Africa and the rest of the developing world for industrial development.

What’s left is the small space between the total global amount of available emissions and the amount that the Annex 1 countries take. And this is the big secret in the climate negotiations that they have not wanted to explain. When developed countries were asked by Argentina what was left for developing countries, Annex 1 countries said they had not done the calculations. Yet their scientists understand the numbers very well.

So the question then facing developing countries, especially in Africa, is what do you need to live well and what are the implications of accepting this particular scenario proposed by the developed countries ? Because for all of modern history the response, the approach to development proposed by the developed countries is that developing countries should grow their way out of poverty. ‘We’re not going to allocate our wealth to you, but you can grow,’ they have said. Now developing countries are being told : You can grow but without growing your economies physically ; you can grow them economically but in terms of the physical emissions, the view now is that the door has been closed. So developing countries expect a certain level of increasing welfare, but you have to de-link that expected growth from your emissions and you have to find those emissions reductions in each of the sectors where people work.

Crucially, the question is what are the implications of changing what developing countries are going to do ? How much it will cost and what technologies would be needed ?

In a sense, any set of demands that are science-based and based on principles of equity and justice somehow have to reflect these considerations as core elements. On top of that there is a need for a whole set of transformative solutions that addresses the root causes of the problem, the structural problems, the systems of appropriation and exploitation that have led the world to this situation.

Africa and other developing countries would have to articulate a whole set of specific strategies and alternatives that put humanity on a pathway towards a world that they want and off the present pathway, which is one of massive appropriation of the Earth’s global resources by the rich which risks potentially catastrophic impacts for poor communities around the world.

This special issue is jointly produced by Pambazuka News and African Agenda, a publication of Third World Network-Africa.

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This article is available in french Changement climatique, science et justice climatique : Définir les problèmes du siècle