Roundtable on climate threats in South Africa



On Monday 17th May, the Climate Parliament held a virtual roundtable with legislators from South Africa, focusing on climate impacts and adaptation in that country. The meeting was organized in collaboration with UNIDO, with support from the EU Commission and was co-sponsored by the Pan-African Parliament. The session featured a conversation between Nicholas Dunlop, Secretary-General of the Climate Parliament, and Professor Bruce Hewitson, a world-leading climatologist, South Africa National Research Chair on Climate Change and Director of the Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) at the University of Cape Town. Professor Hewitson was a coordinating lead author in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 3rd, 4th, 5th Assessment Reports and is a lead author on the IPCC 6th Assessment Report. The session was joined by 19 South African legislators.


Professor Hewitson stated that there is already a significant level of drying in the west of South Africa, which will greatly impact human and environmental health. The changes we are facing cannot be ignored, but there is still a window of time for us to act globally, regionally and locally.


Nick Dunlop highlighted the feedback loops that we risk triggering if we continue down a business-as-usual route. He made the point that these feedback loops might not fully be represented in IPCC computer models of climate change, with which Dr Hewitson agreed. There is uncertainty as to the magnitude of the change we will face, not the direction, and feedback loops will affect that magnitude. Hewitson made the point that whilst the models can still be subject to error, the real issue is how society responds to the challenge.


Nick Dunlop highlighted a recent study about the global mean annual temperature and the human climate niche. He argued that, with a global rise of 3 degrees centigrade, large areas will become uninhabitable, leading to waves of climate migrants across the world and armed conflicts. Professor Hewitson stated that we also need to worry about local and transregional social impacts. We need local research and understanding to translate global findings to the regional decision scale. This requires a cross-disciplinary approach, involving social scientists, agriculture analysis, climate scientists and health professionals.


During the discussion, one MP addressed the issue of the impact in South Africa of actions taken elsewhere. Can we understand who is responsible for these effects? Hewitson stressed that climate change is a global problem. We can point fingers at certain fossil fuel powerhouses, but we are a global community and must act together to solve the problem.


The issue of water supply was raised by many parliamentarians: most South Africans have suffered the effects of drought and desertification. Professor Hewitson highlighted the need for adaptation in this regard, including demand management measures, not just on the supply side. Partly relating to the water issue, the conversation turned to adaptation and mitigation. In some communities, people are looking at adaptation and resilience, rather than mitigation. Hewitson made the point that adaptation is catching up to mitigation, rather than mitigation becoming less relevant.


The need for political will and legislation was highlighted in several occasions. The current legislative framework in South Africa to support clean energy is weak. There are limited regulatory and tax incentives, despite the fact that renewables are the most affordable source of energy. How can local economies be transformed in light of the impacts we will see in Sub-Saharan Africa with rising temperatures? There is a need to highlight the urgency of climate action to each industry. Almost all funding on climate change research comes from outside the continent and requires terms that are hard to meet without a strong legal framework.


There are enough resources in South Africa to power the whole world economy. We need the right mechanisms in order to tap into that extraordinary potential.