/ 28 October 2023

Climate change: Challenges, opportunities and the road ahead

Photo: Getty Images

Professor Barend Erasmus, dean of the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences at the University of Pretoria recently said that there is a need for a successful energy transition that creates multiple economic opportunities. 

“I think a successful transition means that we reduce poverty, we meet our international climate commitments and produce food in an environmentally sustainable and regenerative manner.”

Speaking recently at a climate summit called Africa’s Transition to Net Zero, hosted by Standard Bank Group and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, he shared valuable insight into the complex web of challenges, opportunities and strategies for addressing climate change. 

Erasmus, who is an expert on climate change adaptation and sustainability transformations, was sitting on a panel titled Climate Impact, Opportunities and Risks.

He also painted a picture of what a successful transition could look like in South Africa. 

“The ways to deal with this is through preparedness and the ability to predict and respond to upcoming disasters and extreme events in a way that doesn’t lead to loss of life and infrastructure.”

Erasmus said that the continent had many pre-existing vulnerabilities and cited the following example. “A mere 20mm of rain can result in a thriving suburban garden but have catastrophic consequences in a less-privileged area, like Alexandra.” 

The glaring disparities in vulnerability highlight how tough it is to find an entry point for addressing these issues.

Government Involvement

The role of the government and the level of trust between it and stakeholders emerged as a significant concern among panellists.  

Erasmus believes that academia can play a pivotal role in bridging this gap. 

“Academia has the opportunity to become these brokers. There’s something about the fact that we focus on science and evidence as impartially as possible,” he explained. 

Erasmus has been actively engaged in high-level policy discussions, advocating for a more science-based approach to addressing climate challenges.

“I think it is important to bring in the same message to industry, to multinational boardrooms and to the government, making sure you try to cut through all the noise and making sure that the science is clear because we can’t negotiate with nature. The stuff is going to happen. And it’s going to happen because of what we did. And now we need to respond to it.”

Opportunities and risks

South Africa faces a multitude of risks due to climate change, including droughts and floods which affect food production, costs and safety. 

The impacts of heatwaves on human health are another area of concern, with ongoing research initiatives aiming to better understand and mitigate these, he said. 

Water shortages are also looming, driven in part by ageing infrastructure.

But Erasmus said that there are opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation. 

The transition to a mixed-energy future presents a path for private sector aspirations to align with government policies. The manufacturing of electric vehicles (EVs) locally, for instance, not only addresses climate change but also stimulates the economy.

With the UN climate conference COP28 looming, Erasmus expressed hope that it would make significant strides in several areas. 

First, increased climate ambition is a positive sign, with specific focus areas being climate’s impact on health and agriculture. 

“The link between climate finance and damages is gaining prominence, as the magnitude of losses and the ability to attribute specific events to climate change becomes clearer. This link could open new doors for addressing climate challenges more effectively.”

South Africa’s journey towards climate adaptation and mitigation is fraught with complexities and vulnerabilities but also rife with opportunities for sustainable growth and resilience. 

Erasmus highlighted the importance of science-based policy, collaboration between various stakeholders and a shared vision of success that combines poverty reduction, environmental sustainability and economic diversification. 

As South Africa moves forward, these principles will be crucial in crafting a sustainable future in the face of climate change.

Lesego Chepape is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.