So, you’ve heard people talk about climate change and its effects on communities. You’ve seen on television how governments all over the world are formulating and executing net-zero plans, you’ve also stumbled on a number of conversations where companies mention their commitment to achieving net-zero. Yet, all these seem alien to you because you do not know what any of them means.
For your sake, we’ll be unpacking all these in the simplest way possible. Let’s begin by defining climate change.
Simply put, climate change is a long-term, persistent change in atmospheric conditions. While weather relates to changes in atmospheric conditions in the short term, the climate is more about how regional weather patterns change over decades.
Climatic change is largely driven by a set of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that accumulate in the atmosphere, of which CO2 is the most common. These GHGs contribute to the greenhouse effect and act as an insulator on the planet, raising the average temperature in the atmosphere, on land, and in water.
The earth receives energy from the sun and the GHGs prevent this energy from being radiated back into space. While CO2 is the most well-known GHG, there are many others, some of which are more potent than others.
Take Methane, for example. It is 28 to 36 times more potent than CO2, although it dissipates over a much shorter period than CO2.
As humans, we are releasing large amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere and the amount of CO2 over the past 70 years has increased and led to a 1˚ C degree temperature increase. The main sources of this increase are the burning and use of fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal), land use (deforestation), and agriculture (methane emissions from livestock).
To add to that, the depletion of the earth’s main carbon ‘sinks’ (absorbers) like land (forests) and oceans is spinning us to a tipping point. You see, deforestation leaves fewer trees to absorb CO2 while the ocean is burdened with absorbing excess amounts of CO2 which leads to ocean acidification and has a dire effect on coral (acidification reduces carbonate ions that corals need to construct their skeletons).
Since our planet and its atmosphere form a closed environment, the amount of carbon in this system does not change. However, changes to the quantity of fossil fuels we burn or the amount of deforestation that occurs will change the net amount in the atmosphere.
Currently, we are emitting about 42 billion tons of CO2 annually. To halt global warming, global CO2 emissions must be reduced to a net-zero level.
Reaching net-zero emissions means that for each tonne of CO2 still emitted, human activities must remove a ton from elsewhere in the atmosphere, so that on balance no CO2 is added to the atmosphere. For us to stay below 1.5˚ of warming with a probability of 66%, we are required to limit our future emissions to 420 billion tons i.e. 10 years at the current pace, and then be at net-zero.
This doesn’t mean we can just stop in exactly 10 years. The plan should be taking up a gradual approach that will roughly cut emissions by half in 2030 and help us achieve net-zero by 2050.
Countries and companies are increasingly being encouraged to set realistic net-zero 2050 goals. For instance, South Africa has committed to net-zero by 2050. Also, the Paris Agreement requires that countries submit their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and report back on them every five years.
Furthermore, companies committing to net-zero, although more prevalent amongst global multinationals. It is expected that as the years go by, smaller, more nimble companies will follow suit.
The good part is that efforts don’t have to be grand, to begin with. They can start by embracing renewable energy rapidly as it is cheaper, can ensure more consistent productivity and production, and can help them significantly reduce their carbon footprints.
Thankfully, significant advances have been made in renewables, both in their effectiveness and their economic competitiveness. In the same vein, technologies such as green hydrogen and carbon capture are proving to be more efficient at a scale and can help companies achieve economies of scale and improve their responses and outcomes.
Companies must ensure they make the transition and aren’t left behind as those that have embraced the transition are more highly valued than those that haven’t. The longer there is inaction, then the faster, the more dramatic and disruptive the inevitable policy response will be.
It’s time to make a real difference for future generations.