South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province has been the epicentre of major flooding in April 2022 that claimed hundreds of lives and damaged property. The Eastern Cape province was also affected.
On 18 April president Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in response to what he described as a catastrophe.
The floods were a “tragic reminder of the increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change”, Ramaphosa said.
He called for more investment in climate adaptation measures “to better safeguard communities against the effects of climate change”.
In his state of the nation address in February, Ramaphosa highlighted previous flooding in the two provinces and in the economic heartland of Gauteng.
South Africa, Ramaphosa told parliament, had in the last year “made important strides in the fight against climate change”.
“For the first time, our climate targets are compatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C,” he claimed. This, he said, was the goal that all countries agreed to as part of the Paris climate agreement and “is essential to prevent the worst effects of climate change”.
But what does limiting warming to 1.5 degrees celsius mean, and is the president accurate that South Africa’s climate targets are compatible with this? We spoke to two experts.
What is the significance of the 1.5°C target?
The Paris agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It seeks to limit global warming to well below 2°C, and preferably 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
Climate is the long-term average of weather patterns, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations (UN) body that assesses the science related to climate change. The IPCC measures temperature change in relation to a “pre-industrial baseline period” from 1850-1900.
“If we manage, as a planet, to stick within this limit, then many of the negative impacts of climate change will be avoided.”
In its latest climate report in April 2022, the IPCC made it known that temperatures rising above 1.5°C is “almost inevitable”, but that it is possible to bring the effects of this back down below the critical level before the century’s end.
What causes global warming?
Greenhouse gases is the term for gases, both naturally existing and man-made, that trap heat from the sun in the earth’s atmosphere. They can remain in the atmosphere for anything from a few to thousands of years.
They are crucial for life on Earth. Without them absorbing and trapping infrared heat, the planet’s temperature would be at an estimated -20℃.
However, human activities are changing the natural greenhouse. These include the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, which increases the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and the clearing of land for agriculture and industry.
As more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, more heat is trapped. Over time this leads to what is known as global warming, which is most commonly measured as the long-term average increase in Earth’s global surface temperature. For example, the United Nations says 2010 to 2019 was the warmest decade ever recorded.
The resulting changes to the climate system include extreme weather conditions such as floods, heatwaves and droughts, as well as more acidic oceans, rising sea levels and the extinction of species.
What is South Africa’s target?
Under the Paris agreement, countries communicate their nationally determined contributions, or NDCs, which show the steps they will take to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in order to reach the treaty’s aims.
The treaty has 195 signatories, including South Africa. The country deposited its first NDC under the treaty in 2015. There it committed to keep its national greenhouse gas emissions within a range from 398 to 614 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2-eq) for 2025 and 2030.
Are South Africa’s targets compatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C?
Attaining the global warming limit requires a collective international effort to be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change supports the global response to the threat of climate change.
Is South Africa’s target range compatible with the Paris agreement? There isn’t a straightforward answer to this question because “different assessments would rate SA’s target differently”, the University of Cape Town’s Andrew Marquard told Africa Check.
He said a question for each country’s contributions was whether they were doing their “fair share” to contribute to the global outcome.
“The question which follows is therefore how fast each country should cut their emissions,” he said.
Again, there were varying answers to these questions, as it depended on who you asked, and what approach one used to determine this, Marquard said.
“We are of the view that our target is very ambitious, given what can be achieved by our economy, for example. Some rankings have found that it is consistent with 1.5 °C global outcome, and some have found that it is not ambitious enough,” Marquard said.
“To complicate this, our target is not a single point – it's a range. So you have to look at both the top and bottom of the range.”
Marquard said there would have been “good grounds for the president to have made such a statement, so it is correct in that sense”.
Activists say South Africa out of tune with global targets
Some climate activists say the country is certainly out of step. Brandon Abdinor is a climate advocacy lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights in Cape Town, a non-profit that focuses on environmental justice for communities in South Africa. He said that although South Africa’s NDC was expressed as a range, “the perception is that it is only the upper end of the range that has legal and formal meaning”.
This was because if the country achieved the upper end by emitting fewer emissions then it would have “achieved” the NDC according to the terms of the Paris agreement, Abdinor told Africa Check.
He referred us to the Climate Action Tracker (CAT). This is an online database that tracks how many countries have fulfilled their NDCs and are on track for the globally agreed aim of keeping warming below 2°C.
The tracker rates South Africa’s climate targets and policies as “insufficient”. This, it says, means they require “substantial improvements” to be consistent with the Paris agreement’s 1.5°C temperature limit. It notes: “If all countries were to follow South Africa’s approach, warming would reach over 2°C and up to 3°C.”
Abdinor said one of the reasons South Africa’s rating remains insufficient is because of the “fair share” question.
He said the Centre for Environmental Rights had appointed an independent climate science initiative called the Climate Equity Reference Project which compared South Africa’s 2030 NDC update to the country’s fair share to limit climate change.
Abdinor said that according to the findings of the initiative, “the upper limit of our NDC does not satisfy the fair share for even a 2°C pathway, let alone a 1.5°C pathway. Even the lower range number only just touches the range for a 1.5°C pathway.”
The Energy Systems Research Group at UCT uses a different tool, the Climate Equity Reference Calculator, as its primary tool for its fair share analyses and complements this with the climate action tracker. Their initial findings were very favourable to South Africa, but updates to both the calculator and the tracker have since narrowed this assessment.
The jury is therefore still very much out on president Cyril Ramaphosa’s claim.