/ 20 March 2015

Science sets the pace

UC Santa Barbara students near one of the crime scenes after a series of drive-by shootings in Isla Vista on Saturday.
UC Santa Barbara students near one of the crime scenes after a series of drive-by shootings in Isla Vista on Saturday.

Imagine playing video games for a living? That’s what staff working at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) office in Rosebank, Cape Town, appear to be doing as they guide ocean-going probes with a joystick to gather climate data from the seas.

In a unique project in Africa, they use the data in climate modelling that plots the links between ocean and atmosphere. They also monitor unmanned vehicles taking samples of carbon fluxes in Kruger National Park and Cape Point. 

Sadly, the “boss” does not have quite as much fun. Xolisa Ngwadla manages the global change competency area at CSIR Natural Resources and the Environment. He is responsible for co-ordinating activities and presenting findings in journals and at conventions.

“The biggest contribution my team has made in the global policy discourse is to bring [attention] about science-backed concerns of the south,” says Ngwadla. “We want to make sure that policy is equitable; not that the north must subsidise the south, but we all need to pull our weight in protecting the environment.

“It is not just about who is responsible for the mess, because we must all deal with the consequences of inaction. We must work together amicably and reasonably. It’s all about ‘operationalising’ fairness.”

Ngwadla was lead co-ordinator for the African Group on the Durban Platform. In what was hailed as one of Durban’s greater achievements at COP17 in Durban 2011, the parties agreed to establish a binding global treaty for climate governance by 2015, to be implemented by 2020 at the latest. The new Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action was launched to achieve this. 

Could South Africa do more to deal with climate change? “This is difficult to assess,” he says. “My personal belief is that, besides emissions reductions, we also need to invest in minimising climate impacts. 

“What is important is that such investments should be recognised as such, whether it is renewable energy or increased disaster preparedness. When we spend on natural resource protection, we are paying global bills.” 

Ngwadla began his career in agricultural research with an MA in plant breeding, and another qualification in agricultural economics. He then worked for an environmental consulting company doing impact assessments, and water use efficiency projects.

Currently he specialises in national and international climate change policy, with a particular interest in economic and developmental impact. He also has an MBA, including environmental electives. 

When did he first become aware of threats to the environment? “I grew up in the former Transkei. I herded goats as a youngster and could witness overgrazing and erosion,” he says.

“But I am a pragmatic environmentalist because I am aware of poverty and the fact that we need to alleviate it. In the Transkei most soils are quite good, but some are not that great and can support only subsistence farming. They show the effects of overgrazing very quickly.”

South Africa is complex when it comes to dealing with climate change, he says. Most decisions made by the government have to consider developmental pressures, and the country is dependent on both agriculture and mining. 

“These are primary resource sectors. When we expand in these sectors we may have to exploit sub-optimal areas, so profits go down. Reliance on these sectors can bring the whole country into a downward employer-labour spiral.”

By contrast, the industrial sector is different: “There are economies of scale as one expands,” says Ngwadla. “But tough decisions must be made on which industries to promote going forward, particularly those presented by a carbon-constrained and climate-resilient world. 

“Renewables provide opportunities for industrial development, but we need to innovate locally and increase local employment. We need investment in research and innovation.”