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The Challenge of Climate Change: Hurdles in South Africa

South Africa contributes to adverse climate change and is also at risk from its consequences. Businesses tend to prioritise short-term financial advantages over long-term responsibilities. Government policies are inadequate and their effective implementation is hampered by political instability. While there is considerable expertise in South Africa’s universities, this is not used to best advantage by either government or business. There have been few tangible benefits for South Africa from the series of multinational agreements and targets set for mitigating climate change. The United States’ decision to abandon the commitments it made in the Paris Agreement will sharpen and polarise opinion on climate change and will reinvigorate civil society movements. This provides political opportunities for activism outside the discredited structures of formal government.

South Africa contributes to climate change by persisting with coal-fired electricity generation and ineffectual policies for enabling and promoting renewal energy alternatives. The national distribution grid is the responsibility of ESKOM, a state-owned enterprise mired in controversy and allegations of corruption in contracts for coal provision and the next generation of nuclear power generation. While periodic supply crises have incentivised large mining and manufacturing firms to invest in alternative energy sources, there are few incentives for households to invest in renewable energy.

As with other countries, South Africa is at risk from the consequences of climate change. Significant parts of the country are hot, dry, and drought prone. Further increases in global warming will put commercial agriculture at risk across sectors that range from large-scale maize production to the wine industry and niche food production.

In particular, poor communities, farming in both rural areas and within the margins of South Africa’s cities, will be at risk. In terms of household income, South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world, with persistently high unemployment, with about half the population under the age of 25 and with a significant number of economic migrants and political refugees from other countries in Africa. Climate change and its consequences will further exacerbate economic marginalisation and political instability.

With some notable exceptions, the private sector has been slow to respond to the frequent warnings about climate change, and to the series of international accords and aspirational targets for reducing carbon emissions and global warming. The mining sector is now investing in renewable energy— prompted by the endemic crisis in state-supplied electricity. Parts of the food retail industry have promoted climate-friendly options for high-income households. However, South Africa has comparatively low levels of regulation for environmentally-friendly construction, air quality, pollution, and similar areas of concern. South African businesses are often criticised for short-term profit taking. These challenges are exacerbated by continuing inward migrations to South Africa’s three large urban areas: Johannesburg and Gauteng; Durban; and the greater Cape Town area.

At the same time, South Africa’s universities have considerable expertise in the full range of disciplines that can contribute both to mitigating local and national factors that contribute to climate change and to leading-edge innovation in the international research community. With informed and responsible leadership from government, South Africa has the intellectual resources to mitigate poor practice, and to plan for the inevitable, future consequences of global warming.

For example, the provincial government has failed, over many years, to plan for the future water supply of the greater Cape Town area. Cape Town is now a city of more than three million people, but with potable water reserves adequate for only a third of this population. Current water usage is highly inefficient. Forward-looking planning by a partnership between local government and the Western Cape’s three universities could result in a set of initiatives leading to immediate mitigation.

Does the decision by the United States to withdraw from the Paris Accord exacerbate these circumstances? Probably not. While the spotlight is currently on the U.S., it is a matter of record that a range of other governments have systematically failed to meet their commitments to address climate change. It is more likely that the U.S. decision is an advantage, serving to re-invigorate climate activism, helping people to make the connection between their own, immediate behaviours and the collective, long-term consequences of individual actions.

The announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from Paris coincides with a severe drought in the Western Cape region of South Africa, a particular severe storm, and devastating fires that displaced some 10,000 people. For many, these events served to demonstrate the coming effects of climate change and the ineffectuality and self-serving interests of the political class.