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Carbon emissions: a bigger sink or a clamp?

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Picture: Supplied – Unpacking South Africa’s 8th National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report, the writer says it reveals some emission sources have grown compared to 2020 levels, despite a decrease in the emissions profile between 2017 and 2020. The paper also highlights carbon sinks – including the oceans, the woods and forests – as part of the solution to emissions, and the importance of rehabilitation and protection of these natural assets. But this protection also requires large changes in existing human practices, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

South Africa’s 8th National Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Inventory Report (NIR) was recently issued by of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy. The report includes a comprehensive inventory of South Africa’s yearly greenhouse gas emissions during the past 20 years.

South Africa, as a signatory to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), will be informed of the inventory’s findings. According to a press release from Creecy, “the GHG inventory is important to measuring the execution of South Africa’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)”.

“Our 15 years of experience have allowed us to establish a rigorous monitoring framework that incorporates public feedback and independent verification to bolster national and international reporting requirements,” the minister said.

The paper discusses greenhouse gas emission sources and removal mechanisms (carbon sinks). Carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane (CH₄), nitrous oxide (N₂O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) are all important greenhouse gases caused by human activities.

Carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides are examples of indirect greenhouse gases that are included in the report for completeness.

Energy, industrial processes and product use (IPPU), agricultural, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU), and waste are the four major emission sectors for which estimates are provided in the study.

South Africa is one of the few nations that publishes its GHG inventory for public comment and exposes the report to a review procedure similar to the one used by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The South African Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reporting System (SAGERS) provides the backbone for this MRV system, and its corporate governance process ensures that key state data custodians share relevant data and information for inclusion in the report.

According to the GHG inventory, South Africa’s net emissions dropped by around 0.8 percent between 2000 and 2020. In 2000, South Africa’s net GHG emissions were 446 million tonnes of CO₂-equivalent with these expected to decrease to 442 million tonnes by 2020.

However, net GHG emissions decreased by 5.9 percent between 2017 and 2020, mostly as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The largest contributors to South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the country’s power plants, transportation systems, industrial fuel consumption, fugitive emissions from processing fuels, livestock, and waste management systems.

Preliminary evaluation utilising data from the SAGERS system for 2021 reveals that some of the emission sources have grown compared to 2020 levels, despite the fact that the emissions profile decreased between 2017 and 2020.

This means that the highest-emitting assets are expected to recover to their levels prior to the Covid implementation in 2021. This conforms to a worldwide pattern, as seen by developed countries’ 2021 GHG emission inventory submissions to the UNFCCC in April 2023.

The importance of carbon sinks in decreasing the net greenhouse gas emission profile for the country is again highlighted in this eighth GHG inventory. To achieve its long-term aim of a Net-Zero carbon economy and society by 2050, South Africa will need to enhance its carbon sinks during the next two decades.

Key actions that will help accomplish this long-term goal include afforestation, replanting, correcting land degradation, and managing grasslands.

Carbon sinks absorb more carbon than they emit by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon sources, on the other hand, emit more carbon than they absorb.

Carbon sinks cover around 30 percent of the Earth’s land area and hold up to 45 percent of the carbon stored on land. Carbon sinks are therefore an important tool of combating climate change, but they cannot offset the negative impacts on their own without large changes in existing human practices.

The natural movement of carbon between the ocean, rocks, fossil fuels, and living creatures is referred to as the carbon cycle.

Forests are examples of carbon sinks because trees and plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store part of it.

When plants die, their carbon dissolves into the soil, where bacteria may decompose it and release it back into the atmosphere, where it can be used by other plants for photosynthesis.

The oceans are thought to be the primary natural carbon sinks, absorbing around half of the carbon produced into the atmosphere. Plankton, corals, fish, algae, and other photosynthetic micro-organisms all contribute to carbon extraction.

Any operation that requires fossil fuels, like coal combustion to create electricity, emits more carbon into the atmosphere than carbon sinks can absorb. Cattle ranching also emits a significant amount of carbon into the environment. It also contributes to deforestation, diminishing the planet’s carbon sinks.

According to Earth.org, in 2011, farms generated 6.6 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, accounting for nearly 13 percent of overall emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. After the energy industry, agriculture is the world’s second greatest emitter of GHGs.

In an ideal world, the carbon cycle would assist to transport carbon from one region to another while also maintaining atmospheric carbon levels steady.

However, the carbon cycle is altering as a result of human activity: we are releasing more carbon into the atmosphere than the Earth can sustain by utilising fossil fuels and running big livestock operations. Deforestation exacerbates the situation by depleting the Earth’s stock of carbon sinks. Since 2016, an average of 28 million hectares of forest have been lost each year, the equivalent of one football pitch of forest lost every second. As a result, the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere is increasing.

To fight this issue, solutions include prohibiting deforestation, planting more trees, using renewable energy sources, and lowering the usage of fossil fuels.

Aside from the aforementioned seas, which are the world’s primary natural carbon sinks, woods are also major carbon sinks. According to a January 2021 estimate, forests absorb twice as much carbon as they emit each year, absorbing a net 7.6 billion metric tonnes of CO₂.

The Amazon, the world’s biggest and best-known tropical rainforest, accounts for over one-third of all tree cover in the tropics and is one of the world’s most significant natural carbon sinks.

Their function is more crucial than ever, particularly since global carbon emissions have increased rapidly over the previous several decades. However, new studies show that the Amazon emits more carbon than it absorbs owing to deforestation and greater rates of wildfires.

Mangroves, on the other hand, are highly respected for their function in absorbing and collecting carbon in the atmosphere and have been shown to be a more efficient carbon sink than forests. Mangroves have been shown to absorb almost ten times as much CO₂ from the atmosphere than terrestrial forests. Indonesia now has the world’s biggest mangrove environment, accounting for 23 percent of the total.

But we cannot rely on carbon sinks to solve all our problems. Instead of looking for a bigger sink, maybe we can try to close the tap?

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.