How is Climate Change affecting South Africa?

February 27, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Here’s my ‘summary of the summary’ of a report published today by Earthlife Africa and Oxfam International.

‘In climate terms, South Africa is already living on the edge. Much of it is arid or semi-arid and the whole country is subject to droughts and floods. Even small variations in rainfall or temperatures would exacerbate this already stressed environment. Most South African crops are grown in areas that are only just climatically suitable and with limited water supplies.

But that climate is set to change for the worse because of rising global emissions of greenhouse gases. Indeed, there are already ominous signs of change – dry seasons are becoming longer and wet seasons starting later. Rainfall is reported to be becoming even more variable, with rain coming in more concentrated, violent bursts.

As the climate changes, it is South Africa’s poor, the majority of the population, who will be the hardest hit.  Climate change worsens existing vulnerabilities and adds to the pressures on the environment and natural resources on which so many South Africans directly rely. Climate change could increase the prevalence and distribution of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever and water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Such things mean that people living with HIV/AIDS in particular would experience increased risks.

South Africa has been playing an influential role as a developing country in international climate change negotiations even though it is not yet obliged to make commitments to reduce emissions. But South Africa is also part of the problem – the largest emitter of green house gases on the African continent and home to the world’s biggest single emitter of CO2 (Sasol‘s Secunda plant, which converts coal to diesel and other fuels).

South Africa is faced with a difficult challenge in trying to juggle three imperatives – development (conventionally based on fossil fuels), poverty eradication and climate change. On the one hand, the country has to fast track provision of adequate transport, power, communication networks, water, sanitation and other infrastructure services. Much of this development implies that South Africa’s GHG emissions will increase. The provision of these services is essential to improving people’s well being and to reducing poverty.

On the other hand, conventional development as carried out in South Africa (like many other countries) has not focused on reducing poverty, will not reduce it by itself, and may sometimes exacerbate poverty and ill-health. And now South Africa also has to respond to the impacts of climate change by reducing emissions and helping poor people adapt to the changing climate.

Energy production is a particular concern. South Africa’s dependency on coal-fired power stations has already resulted in a yearly per capita emission rate of about 10 tons of carbon dioxide, 43 percent higher than the global average.  But despite extremely high per capita energy use, 30% of South African citizens do not have access to electricity.

So what needs to happen? To provide cleaner energy to all citizens equitably and effectively, South Africa needs to agree:

1. A moratorium on building further coal-fired plants
2. An immediate moratorium on any new coal-to-liquid plants.
3. The Treasury should institute its fossil fuel levy with immediate effect, revenue from this to be ring-fenced for Free Basic Electricity.
4. A staggered implementation of carbon taxation.
5. The provision of 1 million solar water heaters by 2020.
6. 15% of all electricity to come from renewable energy by 2020, and 50% by 2050.
7. Make energy efficiency in Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing a mandatory measure by 2015.
8. Invest in an efficient public transport system.
9. Promote gardening in urban and peri-urban areas and around homesteads.
10. Increase public awareness and promote behavioural change among consumers.

A year and a half ago, an official from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) stood up before a group of environmentalists and NGO representatives and pleaded, “Where is the environmental movement? Where are the placards? We can’t change things without the pressure of citizens.” At the end of 2009, the governments of the world will meet to decide our collective fate at the UN climate change conference at Copenhagen; they have this one chance. Perhaps we should remind them just exactly who they are working for.’

Update: Ten years later (2018), this post was the most-read on FP2P, with thousands of people clicking on it, peaking in May/June – could someone leave a comment saying what is going on?

February 27, 2009
Duncan Green