I wrote this as a backgrounder for a post on Arup's COP15 blog, with research and contributions from some colleagues in South Africa and Botswana. Bits of it appear in David Singleton's post, and the full article follows below.
South African President Jacob Zuma's announcement that the country will reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 has taken local and international commentators by surprise. It is not clear how much this commitment has been debated within the ANC, but there is not much public awareness of the basis for the decision, or of its social and economic implications.
Environmental awareness appears to vary significantly among rich and poor communities in developing countries. The wealthy are more likely to consider recycling or installing solar panels. However, awareness is only one challenge. In Botswana, most people lack easy access to capital, which makes even changing to CFL bulbs difficult. A solar water heater costs several months of a teacher's salary, or several years of a manual worker's salary. At household level, therefore, many technological interventions still are not feasible without subsidy or other incentives.
There are people working to raise awareness, particularly for the purpose of two-way knowledge transfer and community empowerment. Professor Bruce Hewitson, director of the Climate System Analysis Group at the University of Cape Town, and a Coordinating Lead Author on regional climate change projections for both the IPCC's 3rd and 4th Assessment Report, is working on downscaling Global Climate Models to improve their ability to help governments plan for adaptation.
At a climate change forum in Cape Town last year, Hewitson said that there is no integration between the science and the social challenges we face in responding to climate change. Vulnerability is a function of exposure to risk, the magnitude of the risk, and capacity to respond. Africa faces heavy exposure to climate-related risk of high magnitude, and has a poor capacity to respond positively. Hewitson and his group are working with organisations like weADAPT to find ways to improve collaboration between researchers and communities in improving resilience and adaptation to change.
In developing countries, there seems to be a dearth of research on community opinions about climate change, or on choices people would make if they were compelled to take action. However there are at least two possible reasons for placing a higher priority on adaptation than on mitigation in these countries. The first is that most poor countries have little scope for decreasing emissions, since they already produce so little per capita. The issues for them are health and social and economic welfare. It would be great to install solar water heaters, design more thermally comfortable homes, and reduce reliance on biomass for cooking - but the purpose should not be for reducing emissions but rather for improving quality of life.
The second pressing reason for adaptation is that the effects of change are already being felt. The most vulnerable communities are living on marginal land: in urban areas, often where flooding is most prevalent; and in rural areas, where crops are grown on the fringes of habitats where they can be grown successfully. These people often lack the resilience needed to recover even from small and short-term variations in temperature or rainfall, and need support for adaptation.
Botswana feels these impacts keenly. According to a paper by Professor Roman Grynberg and Victoria Ndzinge-Anderson of the Botswana Institute for Development Policy Analysis, for a decade the government has been studying the impacts of a hotter and drier scenario on firewood and water availability, flooding, disease, wildlife and tourism. Government ministries are prepared to deal with many of these effects, but lack the resources to implement strategies. For a country that contributes an insignificant 0.02% to global greenhouse gas emissions, adaptation support clearly cannot be linked to emissions reductions.
South Africa, responsible for 1.2% of global emissions (40% of Africa's GHG), must tread more carefully in the political minefields of Copenhagen. The South African government announcement ties emissions reductions to aid for coping with the transition, but doesn't provide details of what the aid is for. A statement from the Presidency notes that the negotiations in Copenhagen should balance adaptation and mitigation, and 'should strengthen climate resilient development and must urgently assist the world's poorest and most vulnerable to adapt to the inevitable impacts of a rapidly changing climate.' The statement goes on to say that the mitigation actions needed to reduce emissions by 34% are conditional on 'finance, technology and support for capacity building from developed countries,' and that 'an ambitious and long term financing package for both adaptation and mitigation is a central element of the Copenhagen negotiations and one that will have significant impact on the extent to which developing countries can take mitigation action.'
As a relatively wealthy country among the under-developed, South Africa has seen very little public debate about what carbon emissions reduction means for society. Some commentators have suggested that President Zuma's recent announcement means that power utility Eskom will have to forgo construction of one of three planned coal-fired power stations. What is not clear is whether the intention is to replace this with nuclear or renewable energy sources, but either way the elimination of one dirty power station is not enough on its own to reach the 34% reduction target.
There will need to be changes in other sectors, and this calls for leadership not only from government but also from civil society. Organisations such as the Green Building Council of South Africa have begun the transformation process, and Arup is proud to have helped the Council develop its Green Star rating tool for office buildings. However this is only the start of what needs to become a concerted effort by Africa's largest emitter of greenhouse gases to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies. While the economic case for investment in transformation may not have been concluded, there is a sense of inevitability about the prospect of funding tied to emissions protocols, and developing countries are lining up.
Postscript: This post was written before the big split emerged in the G77, but it has always been clear that South Africa is not firmly in any camp in these negotiations. The country is too rich (and carbon-intensive) to have the same motivation as the poorest nations, but it's also very different from India and China. This puts the country in a difficult position, particularly as it seemed two years ago in Bali that South Africa had ambitions to be Africa's leader in UNFCCC negotiations. Perhaps Zuma wants to play the broker role, but if so, he's going to have to work out his strategy.