Earth Day

Patrick Dowling, Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) Western Cape

On Sunday April 22, we marked the celebration of the 48th Earth Day, a day which is focused particularly on environmental protection. This is a good time to reflect on what we as citizens and the country as a whole are doing. It would seem not enough.

Significantly, it was on Earth Day 2016, that the landmark Paris Agreement was signed by 195 countries including South Africa, with the promise that each nation, without being prescribed to, would set targets for itself that would contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases and thereby climate change risk.

Optimistically, the goal of limiting global average temperature to not more than 1.5degrees above pre-industrial times was proposed, even though we are already about one degree centigrade warmer than 1880.

In addition to underwriting this globally good intention, each country agreed to submit a progress report every five years along with a revised, and hopefully more rigorous target.

The first one is due in 2020, and the prospects for a pass mark are not looking good.

In South Africa’s case, the 2017 rating was “highly insufficient” though the government’s recent approval of nearly
56 billion rands’ worth of renewable energy contracts could see this changing for the better.

Key is the move away from coal, the source of a quarter of all green house gas emissions on the planet and the fuel that we currently rely on for more than 90% of our electrical power in this country.

We share our position near the bottom of the class with other big fossil burners, like Argentina, Canada, China and Singapore.

Apart from the drought in Cape Town, South Africa has already begun to show climate change stresses in shifting marine fisheries, flooding, coastal storm surges and wild fires.

Because of the
40-year time lag between causes and effects of climate change, these impacts are the product of decades past burning of gas, coal and oil.

The consequences of today’s behaviour have yet to be felt, and so complacency should be the last thing on our minds.

While leaders should be plucking up courage to make the necessary big policy shifts, ordinary people can do more while consuming less.

One of the most important arenas for action is also this year’s Earth Day theme: end plastic pollution.

Another manifes-tation of the oil industry, plastics are a cornerstone of the economy, but the amount of single-use items such as drinking straws, cooldrink bottles and Styrofoam containers is overwhelming ecosystems on land and in the sea.

Careful, selective and restrained purchases, as well as frank interaction with manufacturers and retailers, are ways in which we can help turn the tide of a throw-away culture that puts instant gratification before earth sense.

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals provide a good guide to what commitments are most needed, how to achieve them and the urgency that should motivate our efforts. Useful detail can be found at: http://wessa.org.za/climate-change-adaptation-resources/