Climate and South Africa

Worldwide, the media – especially the print media
– have been coming seriously awake to climate
change in just the past few years. Newspapers
I’ve noticed giving increased coverage to
climate-driven changes include Gulf Times (Qtar),
the Tehran Times (Iran), the Bangkok Post
(Thailand), the Jarkarta Post (Malaysia), and
others around the globe.

The deference to debunkers/deniers so common
until 2007 is all but gone,  the timidness about
reporting scenarios out toward the worst case end
of the spectrum has been going, and I think that
the new frankness in the media is helping the
conservation community proceed with a frankness
of its own.

Until very recently, the British press has
generally been ahead of the pack. But the world,
including the US, is catching up fast. And, tough
as life there is, the article below shows how
candid the discussion is becoming in Africa too.

“The most recent report from the International
Panel on Climate Change says yields from rain-fed
agriculture in Africa could decrease by 50% by
2020 due to global warming, and the continent
would also be plagued by worse fires and more
pests and diseases.”

“We recently published research showing that if
we have, as is more than a possibility, a rise in
temperature of between 2.5°C and 3°C in
Mpumalanga – the Kruger National Park – we run
the risk of seeing an extinction of two-thirds of
the animal species in the park.”

Independent Online (a reprint of an article first
published in the Cape Times, South Africa)
July 29, 2008

Climate change: a look at the bigger picture
By Jo-Anne Smetherham

It’s the year 2050 and Bridgette Malebo has a
thriving vegetable farm in Philippi but no bread
for her children: the roads have been flooded for
months and she can’t get to market to sell her

Once-wealthy apple farmer Petrus van Schalk, too,
is facing ruin. He exports the fruit from his
Elgin farm but the exchange rate has been
volatile this year and temperatures too high for
his apple trees to produce.

However, Godfrey Adonis in Ocean View, whom Van
Schalk might have considered poor, is better off.
He can continue feeding his 13 family members
because he and two of his sons have work outside
the hard-hit farming sector.

Their wages can buy enough food, even though
they’re eating less meat than ever.

These are some of the ways climate change might
change the lives of ordinary people in the
Western Cape, as outlined at a conference last
week on climate change, should the world heat up
as much as scientists are predicting given the
current rates of carbon emissions (the names and
places for the three scenarios were made up for
this article).

The conference, called Practising the Craft:
Writing about Climate Change and Global Warming,
was held at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. Amid
the dire warnings about the consequences of
climate change for South Africa were sparks of
hope and inspiration.

In his opening address, Environment Minister
Marthinus van Schalkwyk said South Africa would
soon draw up a plan for a low-carbon economy that
would shame developed countries into taking more
drastic measures to curb their own carbon

And South African-born academic Malcolm McCulloch
described how the international insurance
industry, badly hit by the floods in Europe and
England and hurricane Katrina in the United
States, was lobbying large corporations to go

McCulloch, founder of the Electrical Power Group
(EPG) at Oxford University, also described
several of the EPG’s climate-friendly inventions,
including a hydrogen-powered sports car called
the Lifecar that does 0-100km/h in just six
seconds. It was launched at the Geneva Motor Show
two months ago.

The conference was organised by the Fynbos
Foundation in association with the Nieman
Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University
and the Nieman Society of South Africa.

In a presentation on food security, senior
researcher at the Climate Systems Analysis Group
at UCT Dr Gina Ziervogel said it was “dangerous
to make assumptions” about who might go hungry
post-2050 without understanding the complexity of
the food system.

“People associate food security with food
production, but I’m sure most of you aren’t
growing your own food,” she said. “You’re
travelling to the shops, you need to have money
to buy the food, you need to have a fridge.

“Food production is important, but it also needs
to be distributed and exchanged… It’s also
about affordability and the ability to buy food.”

We might assume a family with a high income
producing large amounts of food would be less
vulnerable to food shortages than others. “But if
we look at the details, we’ll see we can’t make
those kinds of assumptions,” she said.

“Household one (Van Schalk’s farm) is actually
quite vulnerable, if you look at the fact that
they’re a new fruit farm and they depend on
exporting for their profitability, so as the
exchange rate changes, their access to income
changes as well.”

Another household (the Adonis household) “has no
access to land but they have three family members
working in the non-farm-services sector, so can
actually buy enough food to get by.”

A third family growing a large variety of its own
food in a rural area might seem self-sufficient
at first glance and “might not be food insecure
this year, but next, if there is a severe
drought, they might become highly food insecure”.

Despite the possible resilience of some
households considered poor, it was important to
take into account that 25 percent of children
under five were already severely underweight.

“I heard a few weeks ago that five children die
of malnutrition a day in South Africa,” she said.

Climate change would make things worse.

The most recent report from the International
Panel on Climate Change says yields from rain-fed
agriculture in Africa could decrease by 50% by
2020 due to global warming, and the continent
would also be plagued by worse fires and more
pests and diseases.

Van Schalkwyk cited research showing that global
warming would make the western side of South
Africa drier, “with a huge impact on agriculture
because that’s where our maize basket is”.

The eastern side would have longer spells of
drought but heavier storms, with increased
rainfall overall, and the Western Cape would have
heavier rains.

Van Schalkwyk said that within weeks he would
present a study to cabinet proposing how South
Africa would build a low-carbon economy. “In the
next few weeks I will be taking to cabinet the
long-term mitigation scenario study, which has
been completed. Then it will be up to our cabinet
to take some very necessary decisions.

“Within two years of today, we will be able to
put on the table a regulatory, a fiscal and a
legislative package. It will include a timetable
for a rollout, a policy as well as legislation. I
believe it’s possible.”

He reiterated the call from developing countries
that developed countries should take the lead and
cut their carbon emissions by between 80 percent
and 95 percent by 2050, and between 25 percent
and 40 percent by 2020.

“That said, South Africa feels very strongly that
we have to do more. We have to demonstrate
integrity and we have to commit to building a
low-carbon economy. It’s a huge ship to turn,
with huge economic implications, but we believe
we can do it. It’s achievable.”

The end of next year, at a conference in
Copenhagen, was the deadline for a framework for
an international agreement to replace the Kyoto

“I believe our government will take the right
decision, and come that red-letter day in 2009,
South Africa will be able to go to those
negotiations with a credible case and an argument
that will leave very little space for developed
countries not to shoulder their historical

Meanwhile, South Africa could not avoid the
effects of climate change and some would be
dramatic. “We have just seen some new research
that indicates a serious, serious decline in the
number of soil moisture days in South Africa –
the days there is enough moisture, and the
temperature in the soil is ready, for plant
growth,” the minister said. “There are huge
implications for agriculture in our country.”

Ziervogel said it was not only quantity of
rainfall that was important but “the timing of
the rainfall in relation to plant growth”.

“We will see more threats to food security,” said
Van Schalkwyk. “We will see challenges to the way
we manage health. If we don’t act decisively, at
a huge cost, we will see an increase in malaria,
as an example, moving into areas where we never
had it before.

“We recently published research showing that if
we have, as is more than a possibility, a rise in
temperature of between 2.5°C and 3°C in
Mpumalanga – the Kruger National Park – we run
the risk of seeing an extinction of two-thirds of
the animal species in the park.

“The changes will not only be in agriculture, in
health and protected areas management, but also
the way we construct roads, bridges and
buildings. Those are all challenges we have to

Nine-tenths of South Africa’s energy comes from
“cheap, dirty” coal which costs 18 cents per kWh,
while solar energy costs 46c and wind 56c. “That
price gap is the challenge for us as a developing
country and that is where we will have to make
progress, with more investment and the right kind
of policy decisions.

“I believe the way to approach climate change is
not to stoke fear but share with people what the
challenges will be, and also to tell people what
possible solutions are available to us.”

Despite his upbeat approach, the only concrete
target he mentioned was no advance on Eskom’s
previous commitments. “What we are willing to
commit ourselves to, just as an example, is to
change that energy mix – to push nuclear and
renewables up to at least 27 percent of that
energy mix.”

Ziervogel said the demand for food was expected
to continue growing, and prices to continue
rising, as droughts and floods affected food

Farmers might compensate in a host of ways: by
substituting their overhead irrigation systems
for drip irrigation, for example, and switching
to different kinds of crops and livestock as the
amount of arable land decreased.

Water might be recycled for irrigating crops.
There might be fewer seasonal jobs on farms, more
livestock disease, higher food prices and a
greater proportion of food imports.

South Africa would have to reassess the standards
for its bridges, railways and even roads to
withstand more frequent flooding.

South Africans preferred maize to sorghum, which
fares better with less rainfall. Would we be
willing to eat sorghum instead?

Roads could be washed away and perhaps many
people would not be able to get to markets for

“What are they eating then?” Ziervogel asked.

“If your house is washed away and you have no
insurance, it’s very hard to rebuild your house
and find the assets you had before. You might
need to spend money you might have spent on
nutritious food on trying to find some shelter.

“Unfortunately, the poorer people usually spend a
greater proportion of their income on the food
basket, so if prices rise they’ll have even less
to spend on things like education and health
services… People might also be more likely to
go out and search for wild foods.”

Wilmot James, founder of the Fynbos Foundation,
described the gathering as “a small, intimate
conference so that conversation can take place
between scientists and journalists about the
facts and the implications of those facts, when
it comes to climate and climate change”.

At the start of his address, McCulloch said he
wanted to “turn things around, slightly” and ask
not what it would cost for businesses to go
green, but “what happens if we don’t do green

The insurance industry had forked out more than
$16-billion in direct costs for the European
floods of 2002, $13.5-billion in direct costs for
the European heatwave of 2003 and $84-billion for
Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he said.

As a result, insurance companies were “forcing
change on various corporate businesses”.

The Electrical Power Group McCulloch founded at
Oxford had developed several eco-friendly
vehicles, and in doing so took on “the challenge
of making green energy cool”, he said.

“When people think of an electric vehicle, most
think of a milk truck, which is not exactly a
high-performance vehicle.”

The group’s hydrogen-powered Morgan Lifecar “took
conventional ideas and turned them on their
head… If you look at every other hydrogen
vehicle that’s produced, the size of the fuel
cell is at least four times larger and the cost
of the fuel cell is between $30 000 and $40 000,
whereas ours is coming in at between $5 000 and
$10 000”.

Like all hydrogen-fuelled cars, it emits only
water vapour. It weighs a mere 650kg (most
vehicles weigh more than a ton) and has a 20kW
fuel cell (a Volkswagen Citi Golf has a 65kW

“This has been a very interesting development as it was industry-led.

“Hopefully, that doesn’t look like a milk truck
any more,” he said, pointing to the low-slung
curves on the vehicle in an illustration.

Another hydrogen-powered vehicle the EPG has
developed, called the ECH2O, uses a mere 0.5
litres of petrol per 100km. These designs were
possible because of the huge inefficiencies of
the vehicles we now drive, McCulloch said.

“Less than one percent of the energy of the fuel
is used to transport a person. That gives you an
idea of how much room you’ve got to improve

A third technology converts existing cars,
allowing them to run on a battery for city use,
then kick over to a diesel engine on the
highways. “The beauty of this one is that you can
take an existing vehicle and do a very simple

General Motors would spend about $50-billion on
developing such a project. GM was working with
the EPG on this project, which would cost only
about $2-billion, because it adapts existing cars.

The research group had also developed a device
that measured a household’s changing energy use
and gave live, itemised billing for how much
energy each device was using.

At the start of his presentation, McCulloch
quoted novelist Ian McEwan, who had inspired some
of his work. “The pressure of our numbers, the
abundance of our inventions, the blind forces of
our desires… are generating a heat, a hot brake
on our civilisation. How can we begin to restrain

At the close of his address, he quoted McEwan
again. “Pessimism is intellectually delicious,
even thrilling. But the matter before us is too
serious for mere self-pleasuring.

“On our side we have rationality, which finds its
finest expression in good science, and we have a
talent for working together when it suits us. Are
we at the beginning of an unprecedented era of
international co-operation, or are we living in
an Edwardian dream of reckless denial?

“Is this the beginning, or the beginning of the end?”

     * This article was originally published on
page 11 of The Cape Times on July 29, 2008

Published on the Web by IOL on 2008-07-29 06:08:00

© Independent Online 2005. All rights reserved.
IOL publishes this article in good faith but is
not liable for any loss or damage caused by
reliance on the information it contains.


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