What does it mean to be sustainable in a climate-changed world?

Protestors of the Rural Women Assembly participating in the march for climate change on December 3 2011 in Durban. (Gallo)

Protestors of the Rural Women Assembly participating in the march for climate change on December 3 2011 in Durban. (Gallo)

Both government and business in South Africa should be commended for their progress made in responding to climate change.

Under the National Climate Change Response White Paper, government has prioritised action aimed at both reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) and adapting to those impacts of climate change which cannot be avoided (adaptation).

South African businesses are also clearly committed to reducing emissions, as demonstrated recently with the launch of the 2012 Carbon Disclosure Project report for the JSE Top 100 companies.

The latest Carbon Disclosure Report shows a trend towards greater disclosure and clear progress towards setting and achieving emission reduction targets.

Where though, does adaptation feature on the South African business agenda? The answer seems clear – this response is woefully lacking.

For context, scientists and international climate negotiators agree that we need to dramatically reduce emissions in order to limit global average temperature increases below 2°C by 2100 to avoid dangerous climate change.

There is growing consensus that these ambitious targets will not be met based on the existing levels of commitment towards emission reductions.

Devastating impact
Adaptation becomes an increasingly important part of a response strategy for business as the scale of climate change impacts grows.

Without hyperbole, climate change will have impacts on every facet of human existence and the world we live in. These impacts will be felt on biodiversity, agriculture and food security, water access and availability, human health and weather extremes including heat waves, storms, droughts and flooding.

We have already begun to see the impact of these changes around the globe, with hot days becoming hotter and occurring more often.

Hurricane Sandy may have been just a very severe storm, but the warmer waters that gave rise to the superstorm and the subsequent devastation and destruction it wrought on the east coast of the United States are a sign of things to come.

In South Africa, climate change is also already impacting businesses and communities. In KwaZulu-Natal, the impacts of sea-level rise and greater storm intensities are causing greater coastal erosion and flooding.

As water-scarcity increases, climate change is exacerbating problems of water access and availability for industry, agriculture and human settlements alike.
The effects of this are to increase risks and vulnerabilities in many different parts of society and the economy.

In Johannesburg, increasing rainfall intensity is placing additional pressure on storm water drains and other municipal infrastructure. In Limpopo Province, climate change is increasing the vulnerability of rural communities and particularly to health-related risks such as malaria.

Adaptation is key
The inevitability of further climate change will only increase vulnerability and risk for businesses, industries and communities.

These changes won't only come in the form of disasters – severe storms and floods, but also in the form of long-term, systematic changes affecting food security, access to adequate quantities of clean water and reliable energy at affordable prices.

The need to respond to these challenges is the focus of adaptation. Adaptation is about changing "business as usual" in order to reduce intrinsic vulnerability and build long-term climate resilience. In this sense, adaptation is not about helping people and businesses cope with the next natural disaster.

Assistance in the aftermath of a catastrophe does nothing to increased preparedness for the next one.

We will need to change – to adapt – to completely new circumstances. In this sense reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency (the cornerstones of mitigation) are a valid but not a sufficient adaptation response to climate change.

Adaptations in business
Businesses face very specific challenges under this broader definition of adaptation. Firstly, adaptation requires a longer-term, strategic focus on risk management for business. 

Vulnerability assessments need to consider long-term issues around asset values and inherent climate-related risks to which businesses are exposed.

The best example of an industry which has already grasped this is the insurance (particularly the reinsurance) industry, which has seen levels of extreme weather-related insured losses increase significantly over the last twenty years.

More critically, the strategic response for business will need to expand from a focus on mitigation to include adaptation-related issues order to achieve comprehensive climate resilience.

This approach will also recognise the inherent opportunities that are found within adaptation efforts.

Adapting to a changing climate is very much about enhancing efficiencies and reducing exposure to price volatility, ensuring the security of the supply chain, maintaining key resources such as clean, potable water, as well as promoting sound infrastructure planning and design.

The fundamental issue faced by business is ultimately the same as that faced by all of us. What does it really mean to be sustainable in a climate-changed world?

Dr Alec Joubert is the principal consultant for Camco Clean Energy

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