Responding to climate change in South Africa

Striking contradiction: Ethekwini's adaption plans appear to be negated by the Durban port expansion. (Photo: Delwyn Versamy)

Striking contradiction: Ethekwini's adaption plans appear to be negated by the Durban port expansion. (Photo: Delwyn Versamy)

For all of the specific impacts that are projected as a result of climate change, and for all of the specific changes that are already evident, the only certainty is that the world is rapidly changing.

Coping with climate change requires innovative and creative responses at all levels of society and governance. In South Africa, work to address the impact and causes of climate change is under way in a number of national and local government departments, as well as at community and individual levels. 

Recognising that the country both experiences severe impact from climate change and is a significant contributor to the problem, the National Development Plan makes a commitment to a lower carbon and climate-resilient future, with the National Climate Change Response White Paper (NCCRP) setting out a pathway to achieve this.

Judy Beaumont, deputy director general of the Climate Change and Air Quality Directorate of the department of environmental affairs, says there is commitment to reduce emissions without losing competitiveness, and adaptation is included as part of national development strategies.

There is also commitment to growth in renewable energy as well as job creation in the manufacturing of renewable energy technologies, she says.  

Beaumont says although her department leads the work on South Africa’s climate response, progress cannot be achieved without strong partnerships with other departments, and work occurs across policy, planning and implementation levels.

“We’ve done analyses of gaps in policy to understand how sector department policies and laws either support or constrain mitigation or adaptation. At the implementation level, we’ve identified a number of climate change response flagships as short- and medium-term priority programmes to facilitate the transition.”

At a planning level the department is working to ensure that climate change is prioritised, including in discussions about the country’s energy mix, she adds.  

To support adaptation planning, the Long Term Adaptation Scenarios project produced a series of impact assessments for particular sectors, established priority interventions, and identified responses that require co-ordination across different sectors.

Detailed work is now being done on areas that are particularly vulnerable. Adaptation is also included as one of the country’s contributions under the new climate change agreement that is being negotiated this year. 

With regards to mitigation, the intention is ultimately to develop a set of emission reduction pathways. Emission reduction will be achieved through a range of tools, including treasury’s carbon tax and mitigation plans for sectors and sub-sectors.

Beaumont says: “Almost 40% of mitigation potential can be achieved through measures that save costs to companies through, for example, energy efficiency and new technologies. So this results in savings to companies as well as a reduction in emissions.”

The department is also in the process of declaring greenhouse gases as priority pollutants under the Air Quality Act, and a carbon budget is being developed for the country. 

Other aspects of the NCCRP include mobilising resources for implementation of programmes, building a science and technology platform, enabling informed decision making, and including climate change in curricula.  

South Africa’s climate response is not free of criticism and one of the key issues, according to Bobby Peek of the environmental justice organisation groundWork, is the disconnect between climate policy and other policies, particularly energy.

“The reality is that we will not be able to meet the requirements of the climate policy,” Peek says. He is sceptical about whether industries will meet even current air pollution standards, let alone any new limits on carbon emissions.

He highlights the disjuncture between South Africa’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions on the one hand, but on the other committing to new coal build, which will significantly increase emissions.

“We have the government giving a spin to the public, saying that ‘we need more coal power stations because we need to get more energy to people’, but all the coal-fired energy that is being built is not going to people, it’s going to rich industries,” he says.

The same conflicts that occur at national level planning are also evident at local government level, says Vanessa Black of Earthlife Africa Durban.

“The climate department has some really foresighted planning, but it is often marginalised and climate change isn’t a precondition for how development happens.  But you also can’t really disentangle the local issues from the national.”

A striking contradiction, she says, is the Durban port upgrade and expansion plan, which stems from the country’s National Development Plan but integrally involves Ethekwini Municipality. It will redesign large parts of South Durban, including residential areas and natural open spaces.    

Ethekwini is a significant – and much noticed – player in national and international climate change spaces. Local governments are considered to be an important front for action on climate change because impacts are felt at a local level, and they are well placed to develop and implement responses. But climate change is low on the priorities list of many of Ethekwini’s residents. 

Recognising that climate change impacts occur within a context of many other challenges, including high poverty, increasing urbanisation and environmental degradation, the municipality initiated a Municipal Climate Protection Plan in 2004 with a strong focus on adaptation.

Debra Roberts, head of its environmental planning and climate protection department, says that the plan uses both community-based and ecosystem-based adaptation, mainstreams protection against climate impacts, and addresses the municipality’s key line functions as well as specific challenges such as sea level rise and the urban heat island effect.

“What we are working towards,” she expains, “Is a nimble and flexible city that can cope with the stresses as they emerge and worsen. We will have to keep adapting – there’s no endpoint.”

Mitigation is framed as an aspect of adaptation, with the understanding that not only are there strong cross-linkages between development, adaptation and mitigation, but also that the systems and measures that are put into place to reduce the causes of climate change are a key part of coping with its impact.   

The municipality’s international-level work includes hosting the secretariat of the Durban Adaptation Charter, which commits local governments to action at a local level.  Durban city is a champion city of the charter, along with others such as Bogota, and is working with other local governments to develop a regionalised model for adaptation in cities. Through Roberts, Ethekwini has also made strong input into the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

According to Black, however, many aspects of the municipality’s adaptation plans are negated by the port expansion: “What it’s really doing is facilitating imports, and we don’t think this is justified internationally in terms of where the economy is going.”

Black says the massive infrastructure project supports Durban becoming “the gateway to Africa” to facilitate increased movement of goods, especially imports, and with that comes an increase in emissions. There is, she believes, also only a token mention of expanding rail systems, with the bulk of the planned transport into Africa being through trucking. 

Already, residential areas in South Durban are under pressure to change to business or industrial areas, with the Clairwood racecourse committed to development as a logistics centre.

“They’re taking up every available green space in South Durban, they’re taking away Clairwood as a residential area and converting that to industry and offices, they’re knocking through the unique sandbank ecosystem to expand the current port, they plan to extend into Bayhead, and they’re destroying mangroves around Isipingo,” says Black.

The city acknowledges the bio-infrastructure value of its natural systems and open spaces, and acknowledges them as “critical” in adaptation, not least because protecting and rehabilitating ecosystems are a cost-effective and flexible way to improve the ability of the city to cope with climate change impacts. Losing natural systems adds to the city’s vulnerability, and reduces its ability to cope with extreme weather events.    

Black says there is also little from the municipality to facilitate individual action to adapt or mitigate. For example, harvesting of rainwater is not encouraged, even for use in gardens, and residents who have installed solar energy equipment are prevented from feeding any excess electricity they generate into the grid.

At community level, there are dozens of organisations and hundreds of projects active around South Africa that contribute to improving adaptation capacity, even if they don’t specifically focus on climate change.

Local-level projects have much to offer in terms of demonstrating what can work and what complications can be expected, but they also need to be supported by a larger framework of relevant infrastructure and knowledge.

Co-ordination and cross-learning across different institutions, organisations, levels of governance and sectors of economy will greatly influence South Africa’s success in addressing climate change.

Working across international boundaries is also important both because of a need to jointly manage shared systems such as catchments, and because many aspects of climate change can only be dealt with at a global level, particularly emission reductions and financing for adaptation, capacity building, and new technologies.  

Ultimately, tackling climate change demands systematic change in our economic and development patterns. Without the luxury of a teleporter into a perfect energy future, the many experiments with new development pathways will provide guidance on how South Africa can achieve sustainable patterns of living.