Cape Town — As communities in South Africa’s coastal province KwaZulu-Natal continue to search for their missing loved ones after devastating floods that killed more than 400 people, the overwhelming impact of the climate crisis is again front and centre. A scheduled meeting of world environmental body the Campaign for Nature, with its Global Steering Committee (GSC) that includes South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, said: “There is no doubt that what has happened here is yet another reminder that we must do something fast.”
Ramaphosa joined several African leaders on the GSC – co-founder and former president of Sierra Leone Ernest Bai Koroma, former prime minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn, and Ruhakana Rugunda, former prime minister of Uganda – who together want to protect at least a third of the planet by 2030, and is working with Indigenous leaders to ensure full respect for Indigenous rights.
The deadly floods that racked KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the Eastern Cape led to a declaration of a national disaster by Ramaphosa after an assessment of the damage was made by the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and other government representatives. “These floods are the worst floods that we have ever seen in living memory. The impact of these floods are well beyond the province,” Dlamini-Zuma said.
Dhesigen Naidoo for ISS (Institute for Security Studies) writes that governments suffer from “lethargy … in reducing the global carbon budget” and the latest floods in South Africa “are the latest in a series of environmental disasters on the continent in the past few months, and the need for smart early-warning systems and the climate-proofing of South Africa’s infrastructure”.
Naidoo went on to warn about “frequent extreme weather events in the form of high-energy storms, floods and droughts”, saying that coastal areas will have to deal with the sea-level rising, receding coastlines and saltwater intrusion into freshwater systems.
The GSC’s words point towards an understanding of the urgent nature of the climate crisis: “The recent tragedies have made our discussion even more important and urgent.” But is South Africa’s government handling the climate crisis with “lethargy”?
Floods may force rethink of SA’s position on coal
Shortly before the heavy rains and floods brought KwaZulu-Natal to its current state, South Africa had announced that there were no plans for the nation to discontinue the use of coal as part of the country’s energy mix. Deputy President David Mabuza said during a session in Parliament that the country’s energy generation is guided by the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2019. This means that all fuel sources – coal, gas and renewables – are all considered equally viable sources of energy.
Mabuza’s statements came after commitments made by South Africa at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow where a major U.S.$8.2 billion agreement with the UK, the U.S., Germany, France and the European Union was signed. Alex Lenferna for New Frame wrote that while big questions remain about how exactly this international climate-finance deal will play out, the funding is intended to be used towards a slate of measures to support South Africa to pursue a just transition to “low carbon economy and a climate resilient society”.
A Just Transition is defined by a nation’s adoption of a low-carbon economy. It is based on social dialogue between workers and their unions, employers, government and communities, according to the Life After Coal campaign. Mabuza’s statements echoed those of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister, Barbara Creecy who in November 2021 said that South Africa would not support a pledge signed by 40 nations and institutions to end coal financing by the 2030s for major economies, and the 2040s for poorer nations.
“South Africa has not signed the move away from coal pledge. Our position in negotiations is that any decisions need to be made in the process of formal negotiations through the convention. And I think that we would be worried about situations where there’s an increase in tendency to set up platforms and pledges that are outside of the negotiation process. We think that it disadvantages developing countries,” Creecy said at the time.
The southern African nation is not the only to have experienced deadly flooding due to the climate crisis – the Global Steering Committee’s African members were prompted to answer: “These floods are a tragic reminder of the increasing frequency of the extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change … We cannot solve our climate crisis and stop these natural disasters if we do not urgently move to protect and conserve more of the natural world. The destruction of ecosystems accelerates climate change and poses a grave threat to our ability to protect communities from severe weather and floods. In fact, one-third of solutions that will reduce global warming can be found in nature. This means that without nature, we cannot stop the disastrous trend that is causing natural disasters in Africa and across the globe.”
And as a growing body of evidence shows, climate action is best accelerated when the negotiating table equitably reflects the diversity of our world. Women’s leadership in national governments and local politics led to improved outcomes for climate policies and action plans, and a strong correlation exists between gender diversity in corporate boardrooms and climate action. And beyond gender, we must include the most marginalised and climate-impacted – namely, the people and communities who are not responsible for our current crisis but disproportionately bear its brunt, Mary Robinson wrote for allAfrica.
How can Africa prepare for COP27?
According to an analysis by the African Climate Policy Centre via Africa Renewal, over two degrees of warming means a loss of GDP of around 5% per annum for African nations by 2030. Africa Renewal went on to detail five ways Africa may be able to prepare for COP27:
1. With the right support Africa can deliver a green recovery
Africa’s rise and impressive growth at the turn of the century was built on the back of commodity exports and new global trading opportunities. However, this growth has not built sustainable and resilient value chains, and an urgent revamp is required for Africa to avoid a lost decade.
2. Upfront finance is key
African countries need reliable financing options to be able to invest upfront to maximise return on investment. As demonstrated in the global study from Nick Stern in 2020, the multiplier effects are higher the sooner an intervention is put into place.
3. Africa’s energy grid is the key to unlocking growth
African resilience will be best achieved by adopting renewable energy pathways and developing national and regional value chains around the manufacturing and deployment of such technologies. A just transition for Africa will also require recognition that some additional base generation will be required for rapidly upscaling investment in renewables. For example, if Africa was to double its electricity generation using only natural gas, that would allow a multiplication of solar and wind investments by 38 times, with only a 1% increase in global emissions.
4. Resilience through adaptation is critical for economic viability
Upfront adaptation investment reduces long term investment costs. As illustrated in the Global Centre for Adaptation’s 2021 State and Trends report, the cost of intervening in adaptation through agriculture is estimated at $15 billion per year, which represents less than 10% of the $201 billion estimated annual cost of paying for disaster relief and recovery after floods, droughts, and similar environmental disasters.
In South Africa, a return of over 150% can be achieved by rehabilitation and investment in parks, while agroforestry and reforestation initiatives bring returns of over 100%. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a return of up to 450% is possible by investing in irrigation and associated adaptation measures. In Kenya, a return of over 200% is possible from the use of resilient seeds in agriculture and similar returns are also possible by rehabilitating and investing in natural parks.
5. Africa should be rewarded for being net positive
COP26 also concluded the negotiations for carbon trading under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. While there are legitimate concerns raised about potential abuse, based on the lack of precision in some of the definitions, African countries have a good opportunity ahead of COP27 to leverage their considerable natural sequestration assets to be able to build resilience by protecting sensitive areas, while also raising much needed capital that can be invested in national priorities. The peatlands of the Congo Basin alone sequester the equivalent of three years-worth of global emissions.