The words ‘climate change’ are known by 41% of South Africans, according to a recent August 2019 Afro barometer Survey. However, there is quite a stark difference between having a term in our lexicon, and knowing what it means.
There seems to be a stream of never-ending news on events like the April 2019 KwaZulu-Natal floods, and severe drought leaving several provinces unsure of how long their taps will keep flowing. Despite that, we keep spiralling towards complete climate breakdown, and a disconnect remains in many people’s minds between these events, their cause, and what we can do about it as individuals.
The great news is that the situation can still be halted before our only planet reaches the point of no return to becoming uninhabitable. Yes, there is a mountain of action that needs to be taken by our government, but it’s not just up to them. Every single South African has a role to play when it comes to fighting the climate crisis.
Why should this matter? Just to name two reasons, tackling climate change means we will be able to meet our developmental objectives and improve quality of life for all of our citizens. But where do we begin, and what role is there for individuals to play?
Some argue that the climate crisis can be solved only by making huge changes, which can only be made by our elected representatives who call all the shots – and that the small efforts of individuals are like trying to put out a forest fire one drop of water at a time.
As George Monbiot recently wrote, fossil fuel industries duped the world into believing that saving the planet comes down to our individual choices as consumers, and we are locked into a system of the carbon criminals’ making, while they absolve themselves of all responsibility for causing the global crisis we are facing. In fact, it is crucial that we act not just as consumers, but also as citizens, by taking part in the decision-making processes that affect our future.
Does that mean that we should throw the towel in on choosing a reusable bag over a plastic one, public transport over a car, or planting trees and growing our own food? The answer is simple: No.
While small acts of individual consumers don’t bring about the system change that we need, they do serve to set an example and as a climate conversation starter, influencing members of our communities to delve a little deeper into what the climate crisis means for them – and what they can do about it.
Greta Thunberg comes to mind. First she convinced her parents to go vegan and give up flying. Greta gives this credit for making her believe she could do more – and now she is an inspiration for millions of young people and climate activists across the globe.
So, let’s go back to the basics and have a little refresher course on what the first steps are (at least those that won’t cause waves of climate anxiety) for bringing up the climate conversation in our communities. First take on meat-free Monday, then topple the ‘pollutriarchy’.
Fly less – and if you really have to, fly economy
Mount Kilimanjaro’s snow caps are melting, the Congo Basin is being cut away by deforestation, and the ocean waves break ever closer to the hotels of Kenya’s Lamu Island. Do you ever hear a tiny voice that tells you to see all the wonders of our world, before it’s too late? Think again – because going there might just be part of the problem, and perhaps you should stay home.
Aviation contributes about 2% of the world’s global carbon emissions, and it’s expected that 2019 will set a new record for the number of most scheduled passengers, with an estimated 4.6 billion – a number that is 130% higher than 2004, and is expected to reach 8.2 billion in 2037; a number that we need to reduce.
And comfort does cause more harm. Compared to economy class, business class contributes up to three times more emissions, and first class causes up to three times more emissions than business! There is a need to consider other modes of transport that are more sustainable, and less dangerous for our environment. One solution if you’re desperate for a holiday: stay local and explore South Africa’s many hidden gems. If you’ve been travelling for business, it’s time for you to get a Skype account.
Have lift clubs or use bicycles
Imagine a street where 100 people are commuting in 100 cars – what would that street look like if those 100 people were sharing lifts, using public transport, or riding bicycles? There wouldn’t just be less traffic congestion on the roads, but less CO2 congesting our atmosphere.
Another option is to buy an electric or a hybrid vehicle. Though this is not an option for many, they are more cost competitive than ever. You can also choose to buy a vehicle that is more fuel efficient than others. Using less petrol saves money and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
Invest in solar power
Solar energy is sustainable and renewable, because it is infinite. It is a once-off investment that provides long-term benefits. Some solar companies can even work out a lease or financing plan that keeps your electricity bill lower than what you pay now. Its sustainable nature will ensure the needs of the present generation without compromising the needs and rights of future generations. What is more interesting is that regardless of the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels on global climate, renewable energy has become cheaper and faster to install – and it never runs out! Fossil fuels, on the other hand, will run out by the early twenty-second century given the present rate of consumption – but of course, we don’t want them to ‘run out’, we want them to stay in the ground where they belong.
Reuse bags and bottles and avoid plastic
When we think about climate change, we typically focus on factories, fossil fuels used for power generation, and cars, but rarely on plastics. Often the plastic conversation centres on reducing pollution in our oceans and other natural water sources – but very seldom on how the production, processing and disposal of plastic contributes to climate change.
True, plastic is a major pollution problem. Through bio-degradation or exposure to the sun, heat, or water, it breaks down into micro plastics that are spotted in organisms that populate watercourses and bodies. These micro plastics have spread to the furthest corners of the globe – from the Arctic to Mariana Trench. Toxic chemicals can bind to micro plastics and create poison pills that aquatic animals eat. Plastics also harm animals through entanglement and ingestion at all levels of the food chain – a food chain that can lead back to our plates.
But that’s not the only problem. Plastic contributes to greenhouse gas emissions at every stage of its lifecycle, from its production to its refining, and how it is managed as a waste product; not to mention most plastic today is made of 99% oil. And there’s more, Sarah-Jeanne Royer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography has found that low-density polyethylene – one of the most common types of plastics found in the ocean – releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down in the environment. To make things worse, micro plastics reduce the carbon-capture ability in the oceans.
Historically, oceans have sequestered 30-50% of carbon dioxide emissions from human-related activities. However, researchers at the Ocean University of China found that micro plastics reduce the growth of microalgae and the efficiency of photosynthesis – the process through which CO2 gets converted into other compounds, including oxygen. Evidence also suggests that plankton are ingesting ever-greater quantities of micro plastics when feeding on algae, which ultimately reduces the capacity to sink the CO2 absorbed by algae into the oceans. In short, more plastics means a broken carbon sink – never mind that the oceans are already struggling to sequester carbon as they heat at an unprecedented rate.
Implement a self-ban on single-use plastic objects – as much as you can considering our local stores’ addiction to it.
Go meatless and eat local
Going 100% vegan or vegetarian may not be realistic for you and your family, but it is possible for everyone to make small changes in their diet. If you eat meat seven days a week, take a small first step by doing one day a week completely meat-free. You don’t have to go vegetarian or vegan to make a difference: cut down gradually and become a flexitarian (a person who eats mainly vegetarian food but eats meat occasionally) or try out the Planetary Health Diet. By reducing your consumption of animal protein by half, you can cut your diet’s carbon footprint by more than 40%.
That being said, it’s not just animal agriculture that’s the problem – and in fact, regenerative agriculture can even contribute to increasing carbon absorption in soils through breeding. Industrial farming and the way we currently grow and distribute our food is among the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Eat organic, local, and seasonal whenever possible — less travel time from farm to table means fewer emissions in transporting it; and even better if you grow it in your own garden!
Always read the label to find out where your food comes from, and try to only eat food that is produced in the area. It’s not just food we need to worry about, though. Cheap, poorly made fast fashion often ends up in a landfill.
Rip out your lawn
Replace the perfectly mowed green grass with indigenous plants and wild grasses that require less water. Studies show that every square foot of grass lawn requires 62 gallons of water, to water it to a depth of 1 inch. And don’t forget to make space for a veggie patch as well! Your new garden will have increased soil health, and be its own tiny carbon sink, while also giving you fresh salads and stir fry.
Plant a tree
Grab some seeds or seedlings, and start planting trees like there’s no tomorrow. This will make a big difference. Throughout its life, a tree can absorb and store up to a ton of CO2. While we are all for actions like Ethiopia’s record-breaking tree planting and initiatives like #TeamTrees, it’s also important to remember to plant the right trees in the right place. While recent research estimated that a worldwide planting programme could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that humans have pumped into the atmosphere, other scientists have found more than a few flaws in these findings – such as suggesting planting trees in natural grasslands and savannahs, which would have a damaging effect on existing biodiversity. Planting trees in the wrong places can destroy ecosystems, increase wildfire intensity, and exacerbate global warming. For instance, tree planting in Earth’s natural grasslands destroys plant and animal habitat and will not sequester enough carbon to compensate for fossil fuel emissions.
What we should focus on is restoring deforested regions and creating urban forests, because they have the potential to cool cities naturally, remove harmful pollutants from the air, and have even been shown to boost happiness and keep stress levels low! For instance, take a look at the work Food & Trees for Africa is doing as the largest urban forest programme in Africa – you can even gift a tree to their programmes for your friends and family this holiday season!
Start a climate conversation
Those who have knowledge and awareness of climate change need to talk about it more – whether at home, in their community, faith group, or workplace. We all need to work together to put climate solutions into practice, and so we all need to be part of the conversation. We can’t do that without communicating effectively. Recent studies show that even though 67% of Americans understand that climate change is real and is a huge problem, only 33 % talk about it with anybody.
It’s time for us all to have more climate conversations – like the 1750 Climate Reality Leaders all over the world who spoke climate truth into action for a full 24 hours from 20 – 21 November 2019. Start by asking one person you’re close to how climate change has affected them, listen to their thoughts and stories, and share your own. An online survey showed that of the respondents who know someone who had given up flying because of climate change, half of them flew less as a result. In California, households were more likely to install solar panels in neighbourhoods that already have them, and community organisers trying to get people to install solar panels were 62% more successful in their efforts if they had panels in their house too. Social scientists believe this occurs because we constantly evaluate what our peers are doing, and we adjust our beliefs and actions accordingly. When people see their neighbours taking environmental action, like planting trees for example, they infer that people like them also value sustainability and feel more compelled to act.
As Greta Thunberg says, “The most important thing we can do right now is to inform people about what is actually going on.”
Be an active citizen
As mentioned earlier, governments have a huge role in fighting climate change – but they have yet to act on it. For instance, South Africa’s electricity is the dirtiest of all the G20 countries, and it’s not getting better. It is disheartening to see that some of the most authoritative people in the world and our elected representatives are all talk and no action.
The vast majority of us do not hold seats in government or have the authority to put limits on the environmental impacts caused by major companies on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean we are powerless in our fight against climate change. It is up to the citizens to put pressure on our government. This can be done by simply joining movements like the Global Climate Strike. Even better, take part in the decision-making processes that affect our environment and our future.
Just recently, a mere 47 appeals against the decision of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy to allow Eni and Sasol to drill KwaZulu-Natal’s seabed in search for oil and gas have delayed that development from moving forward – for now. Imagine what would happen if more South African citizens participated in these processes, as is our right and responsibility. Section 24 of the Constitution says that everyone has the right to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures.
If every individual in South Africa can take these actions and commit to them, we can make a huge difference. Think of the story of the hummingbird. A forest is engulfed in fire and all the animals flee, stopping by a nearby stream to stand by and watch as their home burns – except one. One hummingbird fills its tiny beak with water over, and over again, putting out the fire one drop at a time. Other animals discourage it, telling the hummingbird it is too little to make a difference, eventually asking the tiny bird what it thinks it can possibly do. Without stopping to waste time, the hummingbird says, “I am doing the best that I can.”
Instead of standing by and thinking that any action is too small, or not enough to make a change, be the hummingbird – and do every single thing that you can to stop our only home from burning. If we do not act decisively now, we will pass to the future generations a world that is less vibrant and safe – ultimately, less livable. Change is possible and is within reach but the time to act is now. If not for us, we have to do it for our children.
By Nosiphelo Nikani
- Read more at African Climate Reality Project.