Menu Close

Climate Change and the quests for mitigation and resilience in South Africa

Add to my bookmarks
ClosePlease login

No account yet? Register

Share This Article:

Drought in South Africa’s Western Cape province withers and stunts vegetation across this crop-producing region. The undeniable impact of climate change in South Africa, propelled by escalating CO₂ emissions and rising sea levels, presents a stark reality. Extremes in temperature, both hot and cold, have intensified, leading to shifting and erratic rainfall patterns alongside more frequent heat waves and prolonged dry spells, the writer says. – Picture Leon Lestrade / African News Agency (ANA)

By Adeoye O Akinola

From regions spanning the globe, whether in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, human activities persist in exacerbating the warming of the atmosphere, ocean, and land.

This ongoing trend generates severe socio-economic and health ramifications, posing threats to lives and ecosystems, and causing widespread loss and damage.

South Africa, recognised as one of Africa’s most industrialised economies, ranks 96th out of 182 countries in terms of vulnerability to climate change and increasing temperatures. Its geographical position, nestled within subtropical latitudes and surrounded by oceans on three sides, contributes to significant climate variability.

Surprisingly, the country is responsible for over one-third of Africa’s total energy-related carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions. The impact of climate change is evident with a recorded 1.2°C increase in temperatures, and its average annual temperature stands at 17°C.

Failure to take immediate action could result in a projected loss of 5.03 percent of GDP by 2050, potentially escalating to 13.5 percent by 2100. With an average rainfall of 450 millimetres (mm) yearly, significantly lower than the global average of 860 mm, over 80 percent of the country’s land surface is classified as semi-arid to arid, with only 18 percent categorised as dry sub-humid.

The undeniable impact of climate change in South Africa, propelled by escalating CO₂ emissions and rising sea levels, presents a stark reality. Extremes in temperature, both hot and cold, have intensified, leading to shifting and erratic rainfall patterns alongside more frequent heat waves and prolonged dry spells.

Agricultural productivity has suffered, resulting in increased livestock losses and exacerbating food insecurity, with 20.4 percent of South Africans now facing this challenge. Moreover, the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP has declined from 2.5 percent in 2000 to 2.1 percent in 2018, accompanied by a reduction in agricultural land from 14,197 hectares in 2000 to 12,413 hectares in 2018.

Concurrently, the incidence and impact of vector and waterborne diseases are increasing. Between 1980 and 2023, the country has endured 86 weather-related disasters, affecting over 22 million people and resulting in losses exceeding R113 billion.

The past decade has witnessed the country’s six hottest years, accompanied by multi-year droughts, floods, and marine heatwaves along the coastline. In January 2023, temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius, claiming eight lives due to heat waves.

South Africa’s largest urban centres have faced water shortages in recent times. Cape Town experienced an unprecedented water crisis in 2018, while Johannesburg grapples with water shortages. In April 2022, severe flooding in KwaZulu-Natal resulted in over 400 fatalities, the destruction of over 12,000 homes, and the displacement of about 40,000 people.

In January, storm-induced flooding in two provinces destroyed approximately 1,226 households, affecting 6,418 mostly impoverished individuals and claiming the lives of 44 people. These events underscore the urgent imperative for comprehensive climate action and mitigation.

The cost of climate change in South Africa is multifaceted and significant, affecting various sectors of the economy, the well-being of its citizens, and the sustainability of animals. Indeed, habitat loss and degradation have placed 14 percent of plants, 17 percent of mammals, and 15 percent of birds in the country at risk of extinction, emphasising the critical need for concerted conservation efforts.

Are there coordinated efforts towards mitigation and resilience? I attempted to respond to this important question as a panellist in a hybrid seminar on “Strengthening Cooperation between African and Caribbean States: Facing the Challenges-Creating Solutions”, organised by the PJ Petterson Institute for Caribbean-African Diplomacy, in the UWI Mona Campus, Jamaica, on 20 March 2024.

Other speakers include prominent personalities, such as the Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Former Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Petterson, CARICOM Secretary-General Dr Carla Natalie Barnett, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies Professor Sir Hilary Beckles.

Transitioning to renewable energy sources to combat climate change entails significant investments in infrastructure and technology deployment. South Africa’s climate agenda encompasses both adaptation and mitigation strategies.

President Cyril Ramaphosa established the Presidential Climate Commission to conduct an independent analysis of the impact of climate change on employment and the economy.

Other key actions include implementing a Low Emissions Development Strategy, adopting a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, establishing a Just Transition Framework, and introducing a carbon tax, making South Africa the first African country to implement such a tax covering a substantial portion of emissions.

In collaboration with the US Agency for International Development (USAid) under the Power Africa Initiative, South Africa aims to transition its power sector to derive 42 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030, aligning with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

This initiative has attracted approximately $4 billion in investment to add 2,200 megawatts (MW) of new renewable energy generation. Furthermore, several projects are under way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 860,000 metric tons by 2030.

South African government has made efforts to align its policies with the goals of the Paris Agreement, yet progress in resilience building has been sluggish, particularly in policy implementation.

Despite approvals and discussions, significant initiatives such as the deregulation of Eskom and the enactment of the Climate Change Bill remain pending. Present responses mainly focus on individual households, emphasising behavioural adjustments rather than systemic changes.

Recognising the urgency to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the government acknowledges the imperative to prioritise low emissions activities. As a major emitter of greenhouse gases, predominantly from coal, urgent action is needed to transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources.

Deregulating the energy sector and investing in renewables could create millions of jobs while reducing carbon emissions significantly. Addressing plastic pollution is another critical area where policy commitment is needed.

With plastic emissions contributing substantially to global emissions, policies promoting the reduction of single-use plastics and encouraging the use of refillable containers are essential.

Coastal infrastructure faces escalating risks from erosion and flooding due to rising sea levels. Effective policies and responses to manage these risks are lacking, posing threats to infrastructure and public health.

Furthermore, ensuring uninterrupted electricity supply is paramount, particularly during heat waves, yet coal-generated electricity faces strain, leading to power outages. Lack of access to electricity remains a challenge for many Africans, highlighting the need for sustainable energy solutions.

While civil society groups play a crucial role in climate resilience efforts, the government must also engage the private sector while monitoring their pollution prevention plans. Climate change literacy in South Africa is inadequate, underscoring the need for educational campaigns to raise awareness and garner support for mitigation policies.

In conclusion, declaring a climate emergency akin to the response to Covid-19 is imperative. Financing is crucial, with a disproportionate focus on mitigation over adaptation. South Africa must leverage its international partnerships and memberships in multilateral forums to enhance mitigation and resilience efforts. South Africa can embrace a resilient culture by engaging in collaborative initiatives and knowledge sharing.

Dr Adeoye O Akinola is Head of Research and Teaching at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) and Institute for Global African Affairs (IGAA), University of Johannesburg.