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SA’s disregard for nature means we need 1.7 planets to survive

Earth overshoot day SA
  • Aug 05
  • Tags World Earth Overshoot Day, environmental impact,  sustainability

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If all people in the world lived like we did in relation to the Earth’s resources, South Africa would need 1.7 planets, says Dr Jako Volschenk Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).

World Earth Overshoot Day is 29 July – the date marked when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.  And South Africa’s Earth Overshoot Day has already come and gone on 8 July.

Dr Volschenk says Earth Overshoot Day is an urgent wake-up call for South Africans.

“We are using more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate by overfishing, overharvesting forests and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the ecosystem can carry or recover from. It’s like trying to live from the interest of a big investment, but having to dip into your investment because you overspent, which generates even less interest for the next year. Globally, we have been overspending our budget for more than 50 years.”

Dr Volschenk says that environmental impact increases with income yet drops again in high-income households as these can afford environmentally friendly products which usually comes at a premium. This trend is also visible at country level where highly developed nations typically consume less resources per capita.

“The middle-class in our society has the greatest impact on the environment. As income rises, households consume more meat, can afford more home appliances that consume energy, and typically use private transport instead of public transport.”

Two of the key components of addressing this overspending is energy innovation and the efficient use of energy. However, Dr Volschenk says South Africa is amongst the most inefficient in the world.

“The South African average of 8.9 tonnes CO2 emissions per capita is among the highest per capita emissions in the developing world. The world average is 6.8 tonnes per person. Due to its reliance on coal, South Africa ranks among the dirtiest energy producers in the world and as a country rank 14th on the global emissions list.

Three-quarters of these emissions come from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants and Sasol’s coal-to-liquid fuel plant at Secunda, which is the largest in the world. In Secunda, their coal/gas-to-oil facility has the distinction of being the single largest point-source of CO2 emissions on earth.” South Africans are also very reliant on private transport and travel large distances to work. Typically, an average car has 5 seats, but only 1,5 passengers travelling.

But it’s not only energy where we are at fault. According to the World Wildlife Fund Report, 33% of food produced in South Africa is wasted, mostly at producer level.

Dr Volschenk says that many scientists believe that it is already too late to save the planet.

“In the history of the planet, there have been five mass extinctions. Our current rate of climate change, driven by human activity, and the rate of extinction of species, signal that we are already entering into such an event. The current rate of extinction is a hundred to a thousand times higher than what is considered normal.

“Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, according to the WWF, warning that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.  According to the United Nations, there are currently one million species facing extinction. Some parts of the world have reported a 90% decline in bee populations. Climate change and habitat loss are the main reasons for the severe decline.”

In 2018, humanity destroyed an expanse of tropical forest nearly the size of England and the fast pace of loss is staggering equaling 30 football fields disappearing every minute of every day – about 12 million hectares a year.

He says one the consequences of our actions is that South Africa’s average temperature have risen around one and a half times as quickly over the past five decades as the global average of 0.65C.

Projections for the future suggest that under an intermediate emissions scenario, South Africa is likely to warm by 2-3C by mid-century, reaching 3-4C and beyond by the end of the century. Under a no-mitigation, business-as-usual emissions scenario, warming could exceed 4C across the whole country by the end of the century, even surpassing 6C in some western inland areas.”11

“There are very few environmental problems that do not have companies as a root cause but ultimately consumers create demand. For instance, deforestation is driven by the establishment of palm oil plantations in countries like Borneo where only half of the forest still remains. About 72% of palm oil is used in food products such as margarine and chocolates. In South America the beef industry is responsible for large scale deforestation to create feed lots.”

So, can we turn back the clock?

Dr Volschenk believes we can, but there is not much leeway.  He says that “we cannot make incremental changes. If we do not reduce our impact drastically, we will face irreversible collapse soon if we are not there already.”

“What we see is the result of two ecological constraints that humanity is pushing against, namely our overconsumption of resources, and our overproduction of waste.”

“We can firstly change our behavior to reduce our impact on the environment in our day-to-day activities. Reduce the consumption of meat and fish and switch towards a plant-based diet, and reduce the use of products that contain palm oil such as chocolate and certain soaps. Car pool or travel by bicycle, and recycle every day if you have not already started lessening your plastic usage. Take shorter showers to save on both water and heat and don’t boil a full kettle for just one cup of tea.”

Dr Volschenk says once you have reduced your consumption through behaviour; choose more efficient appliances such as LED lights, which typically use less than 25% of the energy of traditional light bulbs without affecting the level of lighting.

“Once behaviour and efficiency are in place, make up for your consumption by planting trees or changing energy sources like using solar power to heat water instead of fossil-fuel based electricity.”

But Dr Volschenk says above all else we need to understand the reality of the situation. “Nature is definitely not a nice to have or a place to escape the fast pace of city and work life. The reality is far greater than simply ‘just losing nature’. It’s threatening humanity! Without nature, we simply won’t survive. We are hurtling towards the end of a stable planet fit for human existence.”

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