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Global warming action urgent

Date: 29 March 2007

Veteran ANC MP Judy Chalmers, from Port Elizabeth, has called for four urgent measures to be taken to counter global warming. South Africa must install a solar water heater and a water tank in every home, improve its mass transport system and reconsider its bio-fuels strategy, she says.

A stalwart of the national environment portfolio committee, Chalmers made her call in an important speech to Parliament. She said that, following years of debate about the authenticity of global warming, it was clear now it was “the real deal” – and it was being caused by human activity. “What few people reckoned on was that global climate systems are booby-trapped with tipping points and feedback loops. The slow creep of environmental decay can give way to sudden and self-perpetuating collapse.

“If you pump enough carbon dioxide into the sky that last part-per-million behaves like the 100th degree Celsius that turns a pot of hot water into boiling water and steam.” Global warming was caused to a small degree by natural factors like volcanoes and solar fluctuations. But to a large degree, it was now accepted, it was caused by the emission of man-made greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from factories and smelters, car exhausts, coal-fired electricity generation plants and more. Many wild animals and plants which relied on micro-climates were threatened and, if they were lost, this would undercut our world-famous biodiversity and jeopardise our valuable tourism industry, Chalmers said.

South Africa used to have a single glacier situated on Marion Island in the Southern Ocean. Now, in line with the trapping of sunlight by the atmospheric blanket of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, increased temperatures and the mass collapse of polar ice caps, “we no longer have a glacier”. Africa‘s most famous snow-capped peak, Kilimanjaro, would likewise soon have no more snow or ice. “This icon, bold as the continent on which it rests, will have disappeared.” It was predicted that global warming in some parts of the world would come in the form of increasingly severe storms and flooding, and an increase in water-borne disease. In South Africa, it seemed clear that warming and drying would dominate, centred on the fynbos kingdom of the east and Western Cape and in the Karoo, she said. “We have to look closely at what this will do to food security in this country, as changes occur in land cover, the desert encroaches further and our biodiversity comes under increased pressure.”

Chalmers said she would in this regard “like to make a plea with our agriculture department to consider very seriously before switching large tracts of food-producing land over to the production of bio-fuels. “It is a cause for concern that as global warming takes its toll and food security becomes of paramount importance, the use of maize and other foodstuffs for bio fuel will shrink our production for those who rely on it on a daily basis.”

Bio fuel production also required a large amount of electricity, which was generated primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, which emitted carbon dioxide, she noted. “I would hope that, rather, more research can be done into biogas production.” Biogas or methane is generated by processing manure from farm animals in a “digester”. Eastern Cape NGO Third World Investment Gateway (Twig), which is leading work in this field, says this gas can be used for cooking, heating or to power vehicles. Algae grow on the effluent discharged from the digester and can be processed into oil and used to make bio-diesel for vehicles.

Twig says that if this approach is integrated with organic food production and mainstreamed across the country‘s eight million small farms, “each hectare could grow in value by R50000, all South Africa‘s vehicle fuel needs could be met and 20 million jobs could be created”. Visiting British scientist Dr Chris Stokes, who gave a riveting talk on glaciers and global warming at SciFest last week, says if all the glaciers in the world melt, sea level will rise 70 metres. Besides the large-scale destruction this or even a much lower rise will cause in low-lying countries, that will be the end of the precious resource that feeds the rivers that large populations of people rely on, especially in Asia.

Seventy metres is an extreme scenario, he stresses. But all the smaller glaciers in the world from Patagonia to the tropics (on top of Kilimanjaro for instance) to Europe, Asia and New Zealand are in decline, and while the jury is out on the dynamics at work in Greenland and Antarctica, they are also losing large masses of ice, he says. Fractured by “formula one” glacial rivers and lakes of melted ice which absorb rather than reflect heat, these two great ice sheets are “like drunks in a pub”, he says. “You keep pushing them – and they might do something unpredictable.”

In Britain, government and citizens have accepted this equation and are working on various levels to tackle the problem. At the same time they are trying to convince the new superpowers- in-waiting, China and India, that there is a problem, that emission limits should be lowered and that clean energy needs to be prioritised. It is a political hot potato, Stokes admits, “because the question of course is, what right have we to make the call”.

One of the answers to that question, he says, is that, if the international community is going to stop global warming, “we can‘t afford to carry anyone”. Referring to the national belt-tightening exercise adopted by Britain during and after the Second World War, Stokes says it inculcated a moral obligation in its citizens not to waste food and to fix things when they were broken rather than thinking about buying a new one. Today, we are now in an “I‘ll just go buy a new one” culture, which we‘ve got to change”.

Stokes says our battle against global warming has to become a moral battle if it is going to be won. The aim must be to cut carbon dioxide levels back to what they were before the industrial revolution.

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