National Climate Change Response Green Paper: Implications for water & agriculture sectors, and public awareness: scientific responses and Department's briefing

Water and Sanitation

22 February 2011
Chairperson: Mr J De Lange (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

As a follow up to the previous meeting, scientists from the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the University of Cape Town’s Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) gave presentations on the science behind climate change and the implications for the water and agricultural sectors. They reiterated the science behind gas emissions and greenhouse gases, noting the effects also on water vapour levels. There was little doubt that human action in burning fossil fuels and deforestation changed the composition and raised carbon levels in the atmosphere, and stopping deforestation was the cheapest and quickest mitigation. They drew some distinctions between the global and local situations, but both noted that South Africa was certainly not immune to the effects, and perhaps was more susceptible, given the large numbers of vulnerable people. The background and working of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as the criticisms against it, and the views and actions of lobby groups, were outlined. It was noted that there was still some uncertainty in attributing extreme events to climate change. Government had accepted the science behind climate change, accepted that there was a problem, and had taken proactive steps to put in place mitigation and
adaptation measures to deal with it.

South Africa’s contribution to carbon emissions was outlined, noting that it was the thirteenth highest global emitter world-wide, the tenth highest in terms of emissions per capita, and the highest in Africa, because of its high reliance on coal. South Africa needed to have a long-term strategy, balancing social and economic considerations, for water use by agriculture, industry and domestic consumption. In the water sector, there were significant problems, largely due to lack of integration of information and insufficient integrated approaches to reaching and communicating water resource solutions. In the agricultural sector, South Africa was both importer and exporter, and the effects of climate change were outlined. Barriers to adaptation on a small scale included poverty, insecure property rights and lack of information and access, but on the commercial scale responses had been introduced including no-till cropping, recycling of effluent, new assessment of crops, drip irrigation, protection against sun and wind and risk analysis. It would be necessary to investigate the exposure of each sector to risk before deciding how to address it, in an ethical, sustainable and equitable way. The scientists agreed that
whilst it was important to communicate with the public, the message should not attempt to explain the finer science or attribute certain events to climate change, but should rather focus on how the communities could build their resilience to such events, whilst the Chairperson added that issues around demand and wastage also needed to be addressed. There would be a need to integrate and find synergies between sectors, to look at sustainable development solutions, and then to prioritise and accelerate actions. Dangerous solutions such as geo-engineering, to reduce temperatures, should be avoided.

Some Members
had difficulty in understanding the presentation, but all urged the Department to find effective ways to communicate with the public and to create mechanisms for all departments to work together. They wondered why information from the Southern hemisphere was lacking, whether South Africa was making a contribution to the international discussions, whether the training in South Africa was sufficient to address the problems, why there were problems in some countries showing commitment, and whether climate change was likely to reach a point where it could not be reversed. They also questioned how the research presented linked in with the Green Paper, how South Africa could reach its targets, and the effect that the New Growth Path plans would have.

The Department briefly outlined its plan for communications. The Chairperson asked the Department of Environmental Affairs to prepare a brief pamphlet and to speed up its education and awareness, asking whether there was sufficient budget, as well as to involve journalists in getting practical messages across. A one-page outline of the campaign and cost should also be given to the Committee. All inputs at the public hearings would be afforded due weight.

Meeting report

National Climate Change Response Green Paper: Implications for water and agriculture sectors
South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI): Briefing

Dr Guy Midgley, Chief Specialist Scientist, South African National Biodiversity Institute, said that he was the leader of the Research Group on Climate Change at the Institute (SANBI) and one of the lead authors serving on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He also introduced his colleague Dr Brian Matlana, who worked with him on policy issues. He specified that his presentation would speak to climate change resulting from human knowledge, how confident scientists were about the knowledge, and how it would most likely affect humans. Furthermore, he would look at responses at local, national and international levels, and a presentation later would look at South Africa.

Dr Midgley noted that the overview of the scientific facts presented to the Committee on the previous day was very important, as some groups in South Africa maintained that there was no problem with the climate, or with climate change (CC).
He reiterated that gas composition affected absorption of radiation and warmed the atmosphere. This was well-established, but it was not yet certain how serious the impact of that would be. The vast majority of the atmosphere did not absorb greenhouse gases (GHG), as air comprised largely nitrogen, and 20% oxygen. Gases absorbing radiation were a tiny fraction of air, consisting of trace amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). As CO2 increased, the temperature of the air also increased. Warm air absorbed more water vapor and therefore amplified the effect. It was quite certain that humans were changing the composition of the atmosphere, by burning fossil fuels. These were a good source of energy but burning them was releasing carbon, which had been trapped for millions of years, into the atmosphere. Deforestation was also releasing carbon that had been stored in trees and from the soil below them, as well as lessening the absorbing capacity by trees for carbon dioxide. Mitigation efforts focused on stopping deforestation, as this could be done cheaply and quickly, and had an immediate effect. Industry also caused pollution, but some of this had a cooling effect, and if pollution were to be cut rapidly, cooling and warming was increased at the same time. However, long term reduction of CO2 would reduce global warming.

Emissions had increased as result of humans’ “addiction” to fossil fuel as a source of energy, which had increased human well-being. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global body that provided scientific advice to inform decision making on CC, had been criticised that its projections were alarmist. However, in the last few years, emissions were higher than the worst scenario yet projected. IPCC was not in fact alarmist, but conservative.

Scientists were once puzzled by the fact that half of the CO2 released into the atmosphere was unaccounted for, until they discovered that it ended up either in the oceans or absorbed by vegetation. The oceans and vegetation both played a very important role in keeping carbon levels low, but they need to be in balance.  Some scientists had suggested that the atmosphere had been cooling since 1998, which was the hottest year so far, but an investigation of the full period showed that warming was increasing, with eleven out of the twelve years 1995 to 2006 being the warmest ever recorded.

Evidence of warming were seen in the increase in extreme events, including melting of glaciers, the increase in frequency and intensity of wild fires, range of species moving towards the poles, and an increase in invasive species taking over certain areas. Humans were not as mobile as they were in ancient times, but had become fixed in spaces, thus increasing vulnerability.

Dr Midgley said that the question was asked how scientists knew that the global warming did not result from natural phenomena. He explained that no natural explanation fitted the data well enough, but that this was not a good enough finding. Physical understanding predicted the warming. An increase of infra red radiation could be observed from space, and this was also in line with predictions. This was a powerful piece of evidence that the warming was caused by humans, and also indicated that human interventions to reverse the situation could make a difference. The IPCC Global and Temperature Change Models also showed that warming was caused by humans, and these models were accurate, clearly showing human as opposed to natural signals.

In looking at climate and impact projections, certain models were used, with assumptions. IPCC conducted a range of scenario processes, estimating what could happen, including scenarios for population, emission, fossil fuel future and “business as usual”, to help policy makers to understand the consequences of certain decisions.  The last time CO2 concentrations were at 1000 ppm was 30 million years ago.

If the emissions had stopped some years ago, there would have been a 0.6 degree warming from the CO2 already in the system. There was some uncertainty over the possibility that, by the year 2100, the temperature could rise by 4 degrees and continue to rise. Dr Midgley urged the Committee to consider that everyone had a responsibility, as what was done now would affect the world in years to come. The problem was a political one and some of the changes may be painful, but would be worthwhile.

The uncertainty mounted as socioeconomic impacts were considered. The balance of evidence indicated that simply continuing as we were, without making changes, would have greater adverse impacts than benefits. The socioeconomic effects were also inequitable, as poor countries bore the most impact, yet had the least capacity and resources. They had also been asked to reduce their emissions. The Northern countries had already benefited, economically, from their emissions. Aggregate impacts included the risk of large scale destruction. New science suggested that the risk was not as far away as it was once thought.

Based on the graph presented, the international community was advised to avoid a rise of two degrees in temperature but there were arguments around this. There was a link between extreme weather patterns and policy. For instance, fires in Russia affected the wheat crop and drove up the price of wheat globally. The extreme events were yet to be understood. In order to keep the temperature increases below 2 degrees, then the CO2 concentrations also needed to be below a certain level. This illustrated the urgency of action. The options for responding to the problem were to mitigate, in reducing emissions, and to increase carbon sequestration, removing carbon from the atmosphere and depositing it in a reservoir. There would be a need to integrate and find synergies between sectors, to look at sustainable development solutions, and then to prioritise and accelerate actions. There was a need to avoid having to use a very dangerous solution, such as geo-engineering, to reduce temperatures.

Mr P Mathebe (ANC) remarked that he had found many contradictions in the presentation and asked Dr Midgley if he could explain them better. He also asked why there was hardly any information in the Southern hemisphere.

Mr J Skosana (ANC) asked how South Africa fared, and enquired if there was a programme to educate the community to understand the problem.

Mr G Morgan (DA) queried what South African scientists’ contributions were to the IPCC, and if there were gaps from the South African science side. He was also interested how the current training of local scientists would cater for the demand for scientists in the future. He enquired if South Africa could look forward to having anything unique and different, to influence policy and policy makers.

Mr Morgan asked for further information on how IPCC reported.  

The Chairperson told Dr Midgley that he was honest in admitting to the uncertainty in the situation. Although people were entitled to hold another view, it was clear that South Africa had accepted the science as presented, and would try to deal with it. He wanted to know why the international process seemed to be going backwards, in that the developed countries, with the exception of the European countries, were not showing commitment.

Ms H Ndude (COPE) said that she had reason to be worried, because scientists were admitting that no natural explanation was sufficient for what was happening. She emphasised a point that she had previously, asking if there was sufficient planning, and whether scientists internationally were of the same mind, so that they could offer a solution to how this could be mitigated, for future generations, and to be able to offer hope.

Dr S Huang (ANC) asked how South Africa would show the outside world it was leading, especially as it was hosting the Conference of Parties (COP 17). He asked that the Department of Environmental Affairs must have a clear plan on how the information would be communicated to local communities.

Mr L Greyling (ID) queried what happened 30million years ago, when the world had the same levels of CO2, and how it had adapted. He was worried that Climate Change might reach the point of no return, and asked when this might happen.

Ms C Zikalala (IFP) was concerned about the academic language of the presentation and queried how the message from the information provided could be taken back to the people in the communities to tell them exactly what was happening, such as why Botswana was so hot.

The Chairperson suggested that the Department should prepare a simple and easy-to-read pamphlet to explain this phenomenon. He asked Ms Lize McCourt, Chief Information Officer, to note the need for simply-presented information.

Dr Midgley confirmed that there was really not much information from the Southern hemisphere that he could present. The problem in this hemisphere was that many of the processes depended on rainfall, which was very variable, making it difficult to detect slight variations each year. This highlighted that there was less understanding of ecosystems in the South than in the North. The increase of invasive organisms was due to the migration of species to find a better environment suited to their growth. CO2 acted as a fertiliser and hence vegetation seemed to grow more.

Dr Midgley then explained that climate science was strong in South Africa, where there were only a few, but very good scientists. There were fourteen South African scientists on the panel of IPCC. Climate science was taught at the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was starting up a group. The Department of Science and Technology was also starting up the Global Climate Change Grand Challenge Access Programme. There was also a huge focus on training the next generation of South African scientists.  

Dr Midgley explained that the process at IPCC had changed, due to concerns on some minor errors of a report that had attracted huge media attention. Processes were comprehensive, with four review processes of information. The final review process involved parties challenging the scientists and everyone interrogating the findings. He said that the IPCC reports had been viewed as conservative against reports such as those featured in the Al Gore film “An Inconvenient Truth”.

In response to the question of why the world was not responding, he reiterated that there were political reasons, and it also had to do with most political cycles being too short to achieve significant change. In the United States, for example, it would be hard to justify policy interventions within the time scale, especially since this would mean going against active lobby groups, which would increase uncertainty around the issue. Some of the powerful wealthy companies in the world had vested interests in burning fossil fuel. Such links had been made by others, and were used by interest groups to undermine evidence. The process also suffered a setback when a United Kingdom group’s emails were hacked into, over a period of ten years, by a lobby group.

The United States voted to withdraw funding to IPCC even though most of the scientists in IPCC were Americans. During the Bush era, it was held that more science was needed. The current excuse was that IPCC was corrupt and was adversely affecting American interests. This was due to the result of lobby groups pushing the denialist line. There would always be skepticism, as well as arrogance on the part of some countries who maintained that they would only fix matters when they had actually gone wrong. Another ideological stance was that countries felt they had the right to choose their own energy usage and did not want to be told how to do so.  People in America were the highest users of energy on the planet. Every country involved in negotiations supported its own self interest. It was not known how that could be changed. However, after the European heat wave, and fires and floods affecting Russia and Australia, things seemed to be moving along much faster, as these disasters seemingly acted as a “wake-up call”.

Dr Midgley said that there was already substantial meeting of minds around the world, but the key question was how to translate this into action. This became harder the closer it reached to the local level. He recommended that when talking to the communities, the emphasis should be not on what events to attribute to the fact of climate change, but how communities could increase their resilience to extreme events and what they could do to adapt to climate variability.

In answer to individual questions, Dr Midgley then noted that Botswana was particularly hot because it was landlocked and had no ocean to cool it. He noted that the world had gradually adapted to the downward trend of CO2 levels, until now. He noted that runaway climate change was unlikely to happen. As the GHG increased, their effect would not increase proportionately, and that warming would lessen with higher concentrations. There would be unlikely to be sudden catastrophic effects unless the tundra melted.

Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG), University of Cape Town (UCT), briefing
Dr Peter Johnston, Applied Climatologist, Climate Systems Analysis Group, University of Cape Town, said that South Africa was as much affected by global warming as the rest of the world. Everyone around the world was discussing similar issues. CO2 was a major player. The greenhouse effect was in fact a natural effect that kept humans alive, but levels had changed because of the gases that human settlement produced. South Africa was the 13th highest global emitter of CO2, in terms of total emissions, and he listed the statistics (see attached presentation). South Africa was the tenth highest in terms of emissions per capita, with Australia and America (USA) occupying the first two places.

South Africa’s emissions were the largest in Africa, due to its high coal usage. There was no reason for South Africa to keep using coal, as it was not as cheap as people claimed.  The temperature was definitely rising and the CO2 measured at Cape Point was also rising. The rainfall patterns were not clearly understood, but the more models were run, the more they agreed. These models showed that in summer, the Eastern side of country would get more rain, whilst autumn and winter, traditionally the rainy months, were becoming dryer in Western Cape, which consequently had to spend more on climate change than any other province, and was thus being as a model. However, the scale was as yet too small to attribute to climate change.

South Africa faced the possibility of impoverishment resulting from CC, and also faced unintended consequences of international mitigation. The world was doing something. The biggest renewable energy project was in Texas. People were also thinking more about their carbon footprint, and making decisions to reduce it.

South Africa played a small part in mitigation and needed a long term mitigation strategy. 43% of water was used in the agricultural sector, and 23% of this was used by industry, and could be expected to increase with the concentration on mining. Domestic usage accounted for 19% of water use, but this was increasing as more houses were being built. The demand for water was increasing but the supply was decreasing.

There were two significant problems related to adaptation to climate change in the water resources sector. The first related to low dissemination and integration of relevant and important climate information into water resources policy, planning and management, in respect of agricultural and human use. The second was the lack of integrated approaches for evaluating and making adaptation decisions related to water resources. For instance, City of Cape Town did not usually talk to other sectors about water restrictions. When faced with water shortage, it must be remembered that water was still needed for agricultural, industrial and domestic demands. The question was how to divide a limited resource equitably, from a social and economic standpoint. He reiterated that when the climate was active, the more frequently extreme events occurred. Climate change could not be stopped, but it could be mitigated.

South Africa was an agricultural player, even though it had imported more food than it exported in the previous year. The impacts of climate change showed themselves in too little or too much rain, increased evaporation, dry soil, more frequent drought, heatstroke and burning, grain yield reduction, intense rainfall events, higher irrigation demand, and diversification of pests, affecting particularly sensitive crops such as potatoes. Other crops that needed chill to grow, such as apples, would also be affected.

Barriers to adaptation, on a small scale, included poverty, lack of access to credit, lack of South African savings, insecure property rights, lack of markets, and lack of both climate information and knowledge about appropriate adaptation measures.

The commercial agriculture sector had done quite a bit of research in the CC area, as this sector was increasingly aware of impacts. Around 70 000 farmers produced more than 70% of the food in South Africa. Climate change had specific impact on temperature and rainfall, growing season shifts, crop suitability, yield quality issues, labour and industrial impact. Some of the responses in the commercial agricultural sector included no-till cropping, recycling of effluent and reduction of methane in livestock farming, re-assessing marginal crops, more efficient use of drip irrigation, protection against sun and wind, competitive advantage, food miles conundrum, financial instrument participation, and risk analysis.

Dr Johnston said that the decision makers should be asking questions about the climate change risks that faced water and agriculture sectors, how exposed these sectors were to those risks, who would be responsible, were the consequences fully understood, what could be done to prevent them, and what must be done. Ethical, sustainable and equitable solutions would need to be found.

Mr Mathebe asked why the quality of larger fruit seemed to be poor, as it had been thought that “bigger was better”.

Dr Johnston explained that farmers had to make sure the fruit catered to the needs of the consumer, who usually wanted big and spotless fruit, even if the skin was not generally eaten.

Dr Huang asked how the research just presented linked to the Department’s Green Paper. He also questioned how South Africa could reach its targets in ten to fifteen years.

Dr Johnston responded that leadership would be needed to reach the CO2 reduction targets.

Mr Morgan asked Dr Johnston whether there was good cooperation amongst Government departments, if they were talking to each other, and how the Provincial departments fitted into the plans. He also questioned how the New Growth Path plan factored in his research, particularly in regard to coal and the inclusion of ecological limits on water and energy. He also asked if issues relating to CC and the water sector had been adequately raised in the Green Paper.

Dr Johnston responded that there was not sufficient coordination between government departments; for instance the Western Cape Action Plan Committee, which was representative of every department, had suddenly stopped meeting, for unknown reasons. He noted that the New Growth Path plan should not try to give everyone a quality of life that was not sustainable, and it was more important to focus on sustainability, economics and the environment. He thought that there was also a need to check how climate change impacted on the health sector, through urbanisation.

The Chairperson advised that the scientists needed to follow the process of the Green Paper and make some inputs. He recognised that in science there were often several options, but it was necessary to respond and make a decision which path to follow.

Public awareness issues: Department of Environmental Affairs briefing
The Chairperson advised the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA or the Department) that it must build relationships with journalists who would help in communicating the issues of climate change throughout the country, to allow ordinary people, and especially the most vulnerable, to understand the implications. This, for instance, would emphasise that they should not build below floodlines. He stressed that the Department must attend to communication urgently.

Mr Peter Lukey, Acting Deputy Director General, Department of Environmental Affairs, said that one of the biggest concerns was communication and how the message could be simplified without it becoming unscientific, and therefore open to attack. Government needed to be clear on where it stood and therefore should not entertain denialism.

The Chairperson stopped Mr Lukey, asking that he not go into that realm. Every group, whether it agreed with climate change or not, had the right to be heard, and Parliament would allow denialists to air their views, so that the Committee could listen to them and deal with the issues raised. It was important that to date, South Africa had accepted the scientific evidence presented.

The Chairperson asked the Department to draft a one page document that sought to explain climate change to ordinary people, stressing that government accepted the scientific views. The majority of people in South Africa based their opinions on what they experienced first hand, and by listening to the radio, and many people had already felt the effects of climate change. The Department and Committee must lead in finding ways to communicate effectively, and needed to source those who knew how best to communicate with different groupings, in order that they understood what government was saying.

Mr Albi Modise, Chief Director: Communications, Department of Environmental Affairs, briefly outlined the Department’s plan for communicating CC to the public. COP17 would be used as leverage to spread the message, although care would be taken not to confuse the national and the international processes. The key priority areas included demystifying the science of CC and ensuring that all people could participate in the debate. There was collaboration with the Disaster Management Centre. It was intended that a multi-media strategy would be adopted, to gain momentum. (See attached presentation for more detail)

The Chairperson said that there was a need to make the message practical, and interesting, so that the media would carry the stories. He wanted there also to be a focus on demand, and would like to see the respective departments spending budget on educating South Africans not to waste electricity and water. 

Ms H Tsotetsi (ANC) asked about if the role of the schools was ongoing.  

Mr Modise said that Government Communication and Information Systems (GCIS) would be looking at producing plays to communicate the information, such as a radio play to get the message across.

The Chairperson asked that a concise one-page outline on the communication campaign, with deadlines, should be sent to the Committee.

Mr Modise said that the budget was not sufficient to do everything that the Committee had asked.

The Chairperson replied that once a plan had been written up and costed, it should be submitted, with a request for funding, to the Minister.

Ms Lize McCourt mentioned that the plan had been costed at R17 million, of which R8 million was available, and that the Department was seeking sponsorship, and had been promised some funds already by Ericsson.

The meeting was adjourned.


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