Adaptation to climate change is essential
The key emerging environmental issue is climate change. Worldwide, it is thought to be one of the most important environmental and development issues facing society. Most scientists and governments recognize that, while uncertainties exist, there is strong evidence to suggest that human activities, notably greenhouse gas emissions, are changing the earth’s climate and that further change is inevitable.
Although South Africa is still a developing economy, our dependence on coal-driven energy sources and the energy intensity nature of our economy have resulted in an extremely high carbon emission level per unit of gross national product, compared to the rest of the world. We have emission levels equivalent to that of developed nations such as the United Kingdom. We are also located in one of the regions most susceptible and vulnerable to climate change, and we appear already to be experiencing the early effects of global warming and climate variability. Average land and sea surface temperatures have increased, sea level is rising, rainfall patterns have changed, and the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events have increased.
Projected climate changes in South Africa over the next 50 years indicate that the western parts of the country will become dryer, that certain areas will experience shorter rainfall seasons, and that air temperatures will rise, particularly in the interior. Other potential changes include increased incidence of floods and droughts and more severe temperature inversions, which will exacerbate air pollution problems. Such changes in climate will significantly affect all components of the natural environment, various sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, fishing and tourism, human health, and, therefore, the well-being of all South Africans. Changes in terrestrial ecosystems and species distributions are already being correlated with climatic changes over the sub-continent, and the pace of these changes is expected to accelerate.
Given these risks, addressing the challenge will require a broad range of mitigation and adaptation activities. Mitigation involves reducing emissions, while adaptation involves measures to increase the capability to cope with impacts1. While many responses to climate change overlap with those of human vulnerability, several points are worth mentioning.
Reducing emissions in South Africa will require improving the sustainability of production and consumption. Economic growth is still firmly linked to energy-intensive resource consumption6. Reducing emissions therefore means improving energy efficiency, increasing the use of renewable energy sources, implementing cleaner technologies, and moving toward a zero-waste economy. As yet, too little attention has been paid to large-scale energy efficiency and renewable energy interventions. A strong drive to develop cost-effective alternative sources of energy is required. This should include providing solar, wind, wave, hydrogen, nuclear, and biomass alternativesa via a decentralized network of energy generation entities.
No mitigation effort, no matter how rigorous, will prevent the climate from changing. Adaptation is therefore an essential component of our response strategy. It will require strategies that are linked to planning and decision-making processes at all levels, such as ASGISA, the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Programme, the Urban Renewal Programme, provincial growth and development strategies, and integrated development plans. Also, management plans for ecosystems and conservation areas will need to incorporate climate adaptation strategies. Specifically for biodiversity conservation, the management of biodiversity outside formal reserves is likely to become increasingly important.