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SPECIAL REPORT SUSTAINABILITY 2009 – 4

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SA’s reality in terms of climate change and sustainable development

There is little dispute amongst world climate scientists that anthropogenic induced climate change is a very real threat to long-term global environmental sustainability. The most vital and real consequences of predicted climate change is the increased intensity of severe weather events that could include extended drought periods and extreme flooding events. The consequences are certainly the most challenging for governments in Africa to deal with, in addition to current issues of food security and poverty in the region. Resources to supplement food supplies or to repair infrastructural and other damages are for the most part not available in African countries. The sad truth is that governments in Africa are and will be, for the foreseeable future, completely reliant on foreign aid to deal with the possible harsh realities of climate change. Examples of this can be seen throughout the continent over the past decade, for example, flooding in Mozambique in 2000 and droughts in east and southern Africa. These episodes were difficult to overcome, and the reality is that, with a possible increase in intensity and duration of these systems, the adversity and responses will be greater.

It can be said that governments in Africa are not responsible for the climate change crisis that faces humanity. It is not Africa that has developed rapidly, releasing the large amount of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, for decades since the industrial revolution. It is, however, not possible for African governments to sit by carelessly, waiting for disaster to befall their populations. The conundrum, of course, is should Africa aid in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions with the rest of the world or should our priority be to develop and improve the “quality of life” in the region?

Over the short-term, the risk of each country to climate change induced severe weather would be to put in place strategic plans (emergency response plans) that would protect, as far as possible the most vulnerable population groups. Gradually decreasing the reliance of the continent on international aid and increasing the preparedness of the region should be the focus. This preparation would mean regional cooperation [possibly amongst the Southern African Development Community (SADC) members] as well as establishing systems to access international support efficiently. Over the long-term, African governments need to learn from the mistakes of their northern counterparts over the past hundred or so years and, at the very least, try and implement environmentally sound consumption policies. Such policies would ideally reward economic development that is conscious of climate-friendly technologies, especially Governments in the region should encourage the development and use of renewable technologies especially in the provision of basic resources such as power generation and fuel consumption.

Business and other large investment corporations in the region have their own valuable role to play in securing sustainable development from a climate change perspective. In addition to the publicity, opportunities that have been created by climate change concerns (which, in fact, detract from the real responses required) could see their vital role in developing new climate-friendly energy and consumption technologies as an opportunity for financial growth over the next few decades. The vast resources available, and the fact that Africa is a developing continent, lends itself perfectly to implementing infrastructural programmes that are not just a copy of the developed world models, but actually create new innovative systems that reduce the overall carbon footprint, for example of the region as a whole.

This could also aid in alleviating some current struggles that face the continent, including high unemployment rates, severely poverty-stricken areas and indirectly HIV/AIDS. A perfect example of this is the recent flooding events in the city of Cape Town – where the floods were due to an increase in rainfall in the area; because of the lack of knowledge the public has with regard to positioning their settlements; or both? Informing communities on ways to adapt effectively to climate changes and severe weather events, thus increasing their preparedness, should be a key focal point for both government and business in South Africa and Africa as a whole. By providing a platform for many communities to help themselves increase the quality of their livelihoods, but at the same time decreasing their dependence on climate-change-inducing methods, could perhaps ensure a better and brighter future for generations to come.

Prof Stuart John Piketh, BA (Hons), MA, PHD, is a Director: Climatology Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand.