Climate change: Eight ways to turn before SA burns

Footwear on the Place de la Republique in Paris after a climate change protest march was cancelled. (Eric Gaillard, Reuters)

Footwear on the Place de la Republique in Paris after a climate change protest march was cancelled. (Eric Gaillard, Reuters)

The Earth’s climate is changing and South Africa is vulnerable. Even as the leaders of the planet gather at the 21st United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21) climate talks in Paris this week, it is ever clearer that some pain is inevitable.

But there are steps we can take right now to protect ourselves against higher temperatures, rising sea levels and water scarcity. Here are eight that can mitigate the risks and harm – if we care to do so.

1. Energy

South Africa’s dependence on coal is not sustainable – from the perspective of human health, carbon emissions and the fact that it is a fossil fuel. Steps need to be taken to move away from it or, at the very least, to introduce cleaner coal burning technologies.

This is something a host of climate change specialists agree on.

The price of fossil fuels will only increase, according to the International Energy Agency. Reserves will be harder to find and more expensive to bring to the surface. Conversely, renewable energy costs have dropped dramatically in the past five years.

The agency adds that two thirds of all existing fossil fuels must stay in the ground for dangerous climate change to be avoided.

Professor Jasper Knight, of the University of the Witwatersrand, says the South African government is “in a unique position to start initiating some of the changes needed to survive in the 21st century”.

With billions of dollars now flowing into renewable energy research, thanks to recent pledges by government and business leaders at COP21, renewables will be able to provide baseload capacity to national grids.

South Africa can take advantage of this, with its high levels of solar radiation and consistent wind along its coastlines, as well as scientific and technical expertise in several renewable energy technologies. It also has a laudable procurement system for renewables, with R200-billion in foreign investment coming in the past five years.

But that growth still faces regulatory uncertainty and Eskom’s stranglehold over transmission lines. The monopoly needs to be diluted, but earlier this year the department of energy withdrew its support for the Independent Services and Market Operator Bill, which would see Eskom restructured to allow for more competition in the supply of electricity.

These hurdles are blocking the immediate action that can be taken to diversify South Africa’s energy supply, but political interference shrouds the entire issue. Nuclear technology, for example, is no longer a technical or economic issue, but a political one. Instead of taking the small steps that could move South Africa further along the renewable energy path, the issue has been stalled by political polemic and lobbying.

2. Water

South Africa is already a water-scarce country, something that climate change will exacerbate.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research predicts that much of the country will become drier, and the rain that does fall will be in short, sharp bursts, which will damage crops and erode soil. The World Economic Forum already ranks water insecurity as the greatest threat to economies and peace.

But rather than treating water as a resource, South Africans view it as an expected service, says water engineer Jacques Laubscher.

“We cannot change the external fact that we don’t have water, so we need to conserve and manage the water we have.”

The country’s water has not been conserved or well managed: a third of municipal water is lost because of leaks and poor billing and, although only 8% of South Africa’s surface area produces about half of its water supply, much of this land is under prospecting rights.

On the bright side, the current drought has seen a renewed focus on infrastructure maintenance and on the integrity of ecosystems. Driven by scarcity and cuts in metros, the government has pushed for bigger fines for wasting water, and for the price of water to be increased so that it reflects its true value.

But this should just be the start, and water should be placed at the heart of economic decisions. Dhesigen Naidoo, the head of the Water Research Commission, says economic planning, and even the National Development Plan, ignores the reality that there is not enough water for proposed developments.

“We need to be realistic about our water scarcity and build an economy that is less water-intensive.”

Wasting less water and protecting existing water resources from mining would be the easiest way to create more resilience in a system in which water demand will increasingly outstrip supply.

3. Agriculture

Staple food production in Southern Africa will drop by at least a third during this century as a result of climate change, according to the World Bank. As temperatures rise above 3°C, livestock and plants will struggle to survive and reproduce.

This drought is a warning of that future, with hundreds of thousands of heads of livestock dying and entire provinces being declared drought disaster areas.

South Africa needs to diversify its produce, says Bob Scholes, of Wits University’s Global Change and Sustainability Research Institute.

“You need to plant a range of crops, then you’re going to win some and lose on others. If you have it all in one basket, you’re less resilient.”

This has already started, with large-scale producers growing different varieties. The farming conglomerate ZZ2, for example, has been growing tomato variants that need less water to grow, and can survive extremes in temperature.

On the smaller scale, the government and civil society have been driving programmes to support subsistence farmers, because they are expected to be hit hardest by the changing climate. These initiatives range from training in agricultural techniques to crop varietals that are more resilient to climate extremes.

University of Cape Town’s Mike Lucas says: “Farmers need to be sensitive to future rainfall patterns and adopt appropriate crops for expected rainfall.”

The country should shift from beef, sheep and goat farming in arid areas – much of the country’s interior – in favour of game farming, he says. “Game use less water and are less destructive to their natural habitats.”

4. Perception

Climate change’s two biggest problems have been its communication – the science has not been well translated for the public and its negative association with activist extremes. Public perception surveys have consistently shown that climate change does not feature in the top 10 concerns of citizens.

South Africa is no exception, with more immediate concerns such as food, housing and unemployment consistently trumping climate change. But many of these issues are inextricably linked to climate change, such as increased food prices, water shortages and destruction caused by extreme weather, and inaction on climate change will ultimately affect votes.

By linking climate change to the way it will affect people’s lives and livelihoods will alter the perception and importance of climate change.

5. Enforcement

South Africa has one of the world’s best environmental and climate change regimes – in terms of legislation. Rights that many other people fight for, such as the right to a clean environment, already exist here.

But the legislation is consistently trumped by short-term development. Eskom has been allowed to build two of the world’s largest coal-fired power stations, Medupi and Kusile, in areas where pollution already exceeds environmental thresholds.

The parastatal is also exempt from complying with air quality legislation designed to curb the emission of greenhouse gases and other gases damaging to human health.

Melissa Fourie, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights, says industrial developments are rubber-stamped to the detriment of the environment. “Companies know there is very little enforcement of the law, so they go ahead and pollute more, or destroy wetlands and protected areas.”

These areas are often integral to ecosystem functioning and, by extension, water supply, and animal and plant diversity.

Enforcement is not a priority, and a chronic shortage of skilled personnel and funding means the excellent legislation is ignored.

“We could make a huge difference to our overall greenhouse gas emissions if we just applied the law rigorously,” she says.

6. Science

Scientific understanding and technical advances are pivotal to achieving climate change goals.

In a large part it is because of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that we are aware of the extent to which the Earth’s climate is changing and our culpability for it. The IPCC, the United Nations body responsible for assessing “the scientific technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change”, is credited with giving urgency to the climate change issue and putting it on the international policy-making table.

But we need more science to look at local effects, because, although climate change is a global phenomenon, it is felt locally.

A villager tries to extinguish one of the thousands of fires caused by slash-and-burn farming in Indonesia. (Bay Ismoyo, AFP)

Guy Midgley, a Stellen­bosch University climate scientist on the panel, says: “What you realise is that we’re trying to make policy with imperfect science. There is still quite a lot of uncertainty about how the world works. We don’t have an operating manual for the planet, and we need one.”

This is echoed by Wits University’s Coleen Vogel. “Efforts need to be continued in understanding the future complex climate system so that we can better try and project changes and current and future actions that may need to be taken.”

But this goes beyond researchers, says Scholes. “Probably the most important thing of all [to make South Africa ‘climate-change-proof’] is to create a learning society.”

He uses the example of industry sharing water-saving tips with other sectors, and agricultural players sharing new crop successes.

“A learning society has, amongst other things, increased research and development, but this should not just be the domain of researchers. Everyone out there is trying things out, and we should be pooling our knowledge and sharing it.”

7. Financial system

Unlike many other developing countries, South Africa does not have to wait on international benevolence to take steps to help itself become more resilient to climate change. The country’s banks are actively backing renewable energy projects, both locally and on the continent.

Encouraged by this, foreign investors have pumped R200-million into renewables in South Africa. International programmes, such as the Green Climate Fund, which aims to raise $100-billion a year by 2020, will bolster developing countries’ ability to adapt to climate change. These are likely to attract more private sector investment as the risk diminishes.

The global funding model lies at the heart of COP negotiations, with many of the 150 leaders in Paris saying one of the biggest outcomes of negotiations has to be a strong signal to the financial sector. If countries show that the world’s economy is going to move away from fossil fuels, they reason that the business sector will take that as a signal and start shifting its investments.

South Africa’s one problem in this regard is policy uncertainty. This has plagued the renewable energy programme and many other sustainable development programmes.

8. Future cities

More than half the world’s population live in cities, and there is an increasing focus on making them the catalysts for smart development.

South Africa’s cities have ambitious plans to emit fewer greenhouse gases and to adapt to the changing climate.

A key to lowering emissions is public transport, which cities such as Johannesburg have placed at the heart of future development.

This will make the air healthier and could reduce national emissions by up to 10%.

Smart buildings are also being introduced, with each update to South Africa’s building codes calling for homes and offices to become increasingly more self-sufficient. In many countries, homes are already net contributors to the national water and electricity grid, taking away the need for damaging power stations to be built.

Cities are also a key testing area for one of the biggest impacts of climate change ­– rising sea levels. Many of South Africa’s metros lie along the coastline and are at risk from the projected 3mm annual sea rise this century.

For many cities in the world it is too late for any lowering of emissions to stop flooding, so they are putting measures in place to deal with storm surges.

Wits University’s Claudious Chikozho says: “Climate-proof areas that are vulnerable to flooding are putting in place climate-resilient infrastructure such as houses designed to withstand floods, even moving whole communities from low-lying, flood-prone areas to higher ground if needs be.”

Sipho Kings
Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards.
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