Climate Change Research in South Africa: DST briefing

Science and Technology

07 November 2018
Chairperson: Ms L Maseko (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology (DST) briefed the Committee on the state of climate change science and technology in South Africa, and said the climate change science research community in South Africa was productive, internationally well-respected and growing. Over 30 institutions were engaged in climate research in South Africa, but the budgets and outputs were concentrated at five higher education institutions. There were strong linkages among climate change researchers in the various higher education institutions and between the university community, science councils and local and national government, but relatively weak linkages with the private sector.

Climate change-related research and technology development in South Africa was currently funded at around R400 million a year, and this funding base had grown at about 12% annually, or 6% in real terms, over the past decade. A significant number of climate scientists were serving in a volunteer capacity on high level international assessment panels, on global research steering committees, and various other influential bodies. The DST put forward eight recommendations aimed at enhancing the Department’s climate change research initiatives.

The Department also made a presentation on the DST’s water and waste management “road maps,” and described the linkages it had established with other government departments, research bodies, businesses, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and universities. A highlight had been the establishment of waste and climate change chairs at two universities – the University of the Western Cape and the University of KwaZulu-Natal – which were both headed up by women.

Members asked why social scientists were under-represented at the DST; how the R400 million allocated for  climate change-related research and technology development was spent; what the impact of President Trump pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement would be on South Africa; and what the Department could do to assist local industries to reduce their harmful emissions.

Meeting report

Climate Change Research in South Africa

Mr Leluma Matooane, Director: Earth Systems Science, Department of Science and Technology (DST), said that the environment segment of the medium term strategic framework (MTSF), based on the National Development Plan (NDP), called for biennial reports to Cabinet on the state of climate change science and technology in South Africa. This action had been translated into a performance indicator for the DST – two biennial reports to Cabinet, the first report due in 2016/17 and the second in 2018/19. The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) had been appointed to prepare the two reports.

A panel of three members had compiled the report. They were Prof Bob Scholes (Wits), Prof Roseanne Diab (ASSAf), and Dr Jane Olwoch of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA). The terms of reference for ASSAf were: a critical assessment and comparative overview of climate change scientific research and related technological innovations, identification of any gaps or barriers in research and technology development value chains, and an overview of national legislative, policy and regulatory instruments governing climate change and international instruments. In Chapter 5 of the NDP under the presidency outcomes framework, there was an expectation for Cabinet to be informed about climate change,

The second report was due for submission to the Cabinet in March 2019.

The findings had been that it was difficult to extract robust and consistent information about expenditure and performance in relation to climate change research and development across the wide range of actors. Currently no formal mechanism existed to do so. The climate change science research community in South Africa was productive, internationally well-respected and growing. Over 30 institutions were engaged in climate research in South Africa, but the budgets and outputs were concentrated at five higher education institutions. There were strong linkages among climate change researchers in the various higher education institutions and between the university community, science councils and local and national government, but relatively weak linkages with the private sector.

The degree of mismatch between South African research strengths was evidenced by the published output, and the research priorities as identified by users and reflected in policy documents. Climate change-related research and technology development in South Africa was currently funded at around R400 million a year, and this funding base had grown at about 12% annually, or 6% in real terms, over the past decade. A significant number of climate scientists were serving in a volunteer capacity on high level international assessment panels, on global research steering committees, and various other influential bodies. Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary and trans-disciplinary approaches were generally increasingly adopted in this field, but the incorporation of social sciences was still under-represented. South African climate change researchers had been successful in participating in competitive international collaborative research and accessing international funding streams.

The recommendations within the presentation were as follows:


Recommendation 1:


Ensure inclusion of critical information in future biennial reports in order to provide a comprehensive and consistent ongoing assessment of the status of climate science and technology research in South Africa.


Action on recommendation:


  • More time allocated for the information collection and analysis  for the second report,
  • More role players and beneficiaries identified.


Recommendation 2:


Build on South Africa’s research advantages in climate change science, using cross-sectoral, interdisciplinary, inter-institutional and international partnerships where appropriate to steer the research and science and technology (R&ST) portfolio into greater alignment with perceived needs.


Action on recommendation


  • A climate change research network had been created and  would be expanded – Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS)


Recommendation 3:


Fully use of the opportunities for South African researchers and technology developers to access international funding sources.


Action on recommendation

  • More funding was being leveraged through a range of international and continental programmes and partnerships such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Future Earth, the Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management (SASSCAL), SPACEX, and the Southern African Science Service Centre for Climate Change and Adaptive Land Management (SATREPS), which benefit the SA research community.


Recommendation 4:


Provide financial and diplomatic support to South African scientists involved in high level international assessment and research bodies and committees.


Action on recommendation


  • A significant number of SA scientists were actively involved in key international programmes and initiatives with SA funding support – the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).


Recommendation 5:


Provide high level, cross-departmental support for open research, including open data.


Action on recommendation


  • Efforts were on-going to support open research and free data access.


Recommendation 6:


Strengthen links between research and business communities.


Action on recommendation


  • DST was pursuing research partnerships with a wide range of business groupings – the National Bio-Catalysis Initiative (NBI) and Microsoft.


Recommendation 7:


Take steps to enable more effective interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, in particular by more effective engagement of social sciences.


Action on recommendation


  • A new research programme focusing on socio-ecological aspects of global change was currently being developed – the GC Science & Society Research Programme (GSSRP).


Recommendation 8:


Strengthen research collaborations in climate change science and technology with African countries.


Action on recommendation


  • DST was pursuing strategic research partnerships with a number of African countries and organisations – SASSCAL, the South African Development Community (SADC),  and the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA).


Water and Waste Road Map

Dr Henry Roman, Director: Environmental Services and Technologies, DST, said a portfolio management unit had been put together for both the Water Road Map and the Waste Road Map, for which the Department was responsible.

For the Waste Road Map, in August the first two research chairs in Waste were appointed. One was Waste and Society, which is housed at the University of the Western Cape, and is held by Prof Catherina Schenck. The second chair was Waste and Climate Change, and is held by Prof Cristina Trois from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Both were launched in Women’s Month, as the first two research chairs were women.

In terms of partnering with industry, the Waste Programme Management Unit (PMU) manager sits on the board of the industry association for the recycling of PET plastic. Environmental Services and Technologies also have a good relationship with Plastics SA which represents all plastic industries in the country, from recyclers to virgin material. The Waste PMU was housed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The Water PMU had the Water Technologies Demonstration Platform, which was housed at the Water Research Commission. Under the Water PMU, through work that had been done on ecological infrastructure for water security with the Department of Environmental Affairs, the SA National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) had recently been awarded a Global Environment Facility (GEF) 6 project, which was an international funding stream coming out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC on ecological infrastructure for ecological security. The Water PMU Manager has been placed in charge of the knowledge management component of that project.

The Department of Water and Sanitation would be holding an innovation exhibit, and the Water Technologies Demonstration Platform had been assisting the DWS with information. The Road Map had also been one of the developing documents in the National Water and Sanitation Plan that the DWS was currently finalising. 

There was a programme on Research Development and Innovation (RDI) platforms in three catchments in South Africa as an experiment, to see if one had a coordinating space and could manage the people involved -- researchers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government structures -- in a catchment area more comprehensively, a better result could be achieved. This was because there were a lot of actors in a catchment who sometimes duplicated the work that the others were doing because of a lack of coordination.  

The South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas ((SARVA) looks at open data, and the DST had linkages on open data platforms. The manager of that programme was part of the UN’s open data initiative. The DEA’s Climate Monitoring and Evaluation Unit had partnered with SARVA to monitor climate change initiatives’ impact on South Africa. The DEA and DST had done a lot of work over three years within the Tsitsa catchment area, taking a more holistic view that as one improves the land and the ecology one could create services from which humans could benefit.


The Chairperson thanked the presenters, and said she was grateful they had come to present on climate change as it was an important topic.

Dr S Thembekwayo (EFF) said that in future, when there was a second presentation that needed to be done, such as the one verbally presented by Dr Roman, proper documentation had to be provided to the Committee so that Members could make meaningful comments on the contents of the presentation.

She referred to the statement that there was a “degree of mismatch between South African research strengths as evidenced by published output, and the research priorities as identified by users and reflected in policy documents,” and asked if the DST had noticed that there was a mismatch in the research output that would impact on the findings and the recommendations. Nowhere in the presentation had the validity and reliability of the research been mentioned. When the DST was reporting on the problems they faced during their research process, she was expecting them to report on the validity and reliability.

Referring to the statement that there was “a possibility of a section/chapter on impact and/or benefits to society and economy (uptake of climate change on S&T outputs and products),” she asked if there was not a need for the DST to first do an information needs analysis, because it could not do a chapter on the impact right at the end of the research process. The information needs analysis would guide the DST on the research it had done and alert it to the impact that the research had had on the given society. She asked if currently there was a section that would accommodate the information needs analysis of the given society.

Dr A Lotriet (DA) asked if she was correct in thinking that since climate change was such an overarching issue, and though ASSAf did this biennial report, different departments -- such as the Department of Agriculture -- were involved in this research, because climate change was affecting every sector of society. To what extent were other departments involved in this process?

Mr M Kekana (ANC) said he wished the presentation was more specific about funding, as the funding source for the research was not well laid out.

Mr N Koornhof (ANC) said that the climate change related research and technology development in South Africa was currently funded at R 400 million, and asked if the Committee could have a more detailed breakdown of how that money was being spent. He referred to the recommendation to “strengthen links between research and business communities”, and wanted to know who the culprit was for there not being strong links between research and business currently. Climate change sat primarily with the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), and he hoped there was good collaboration between the DEA and the DST.  

Air pollution had a huge effect on climate change and was killing millions of people a year. Recent reports had stated that India had the worst air pollution. There was a huge link betweeen air pollution and poverty. Most recently, there was a report that Mpumalanga was the highest air polluted region in the world, and that would have a huge effect on South Africa. The air pollution was because of the coal mines, the companies mining there, the forms of transport that were linked to poverty, and Eskom. It was all about those companies not complying, especially Eskom, with emission standards. Was there anything the DST could do to assist DEA to ensure that South Africa gets up to speed with complying with emission standards?

Ms A Mfulo (ANC) asked why social scientists were under-represented. What was the DST doing to ensure that more social scientists were involved in the research that they conducted?

The Chairperson asked how President Trump’s stance on climate change affected South Africa.

Ms Mfulo asked for further clarity on international funding for research. As South African researchers, was the research being done with international funding to the benefit of South African people, or was it data that would further international knowledge and concerns? Would the research being done push the country forward? The research must grow the country and move the country forward and speak to South African issues.

DST’s response

Mr Matooane said that the Department would make the first biennial report available to the Committee and that once the Cabinet had received the second biennial report that it would be made available to the Committee too.

On the question of validity and the reliability of the data collected, raised by Dr Thembekwayo, the report goes into this point of articulating validity of the data at length, especially where gaps had been identified. This was captured in the report. Once the report was shared, the Committee would be able to see this.

The question of climate change being an issue that affects multiple sectors, as asked by Dr Lotriet, was a valid one. There were numerous departments that were involved in the issue of climate change. The mandate of environmental protection resource management was held by the DEA, and was responsible for the coordination. The DST works alongside the DEA and several other departments, and provides the science and technology support to ensure the other departments work together to fulfil the overall mandate for climate change.

He said the international funding was primarily from international programmes such as the Climate Change Instrument, not the actual countries themselves. There were a few instances where South Africa had a bilateral agreement with some countries, where it would benefit from inbound funding coming to South Africa. However, there was nothing being hidden by the DST about funding, and it was not from dubious sources.

In response to Mr Koornhof’s question about providing a comprehensive breakdown of how the R400 million was spent, he said that the DST would attempt to do that further, but the current report did have an initial breakdown provided. Once the report was made available, the breakdown would become clear to the Committee.

In response to Mr Koornhof’s second question about who was to blame for the lack of strong working partnerships between government and business, he said that the government was reaching out to businesses to come to the party and assist it in combating climate change. Business was also reaching out to the government, as well as the research community. There was no one at fault, but there was a lot that could be improved in this regard.

In response to whether the DST was providing support to the DEA to ensure compliance to emission standards by businesses, he said that the partnership between the DST and DEA was very strong and there was a lot of collaboration between the two government departments. There were a lot of strategic documents in the DEA that were influenced by the DST, and vice versa. The standard setting was a process that needed necessary expertise. There was the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) that was involved in setting of standards. The Bureau supplies the protocols for the standards, and the DST provides the science and technological support for how those protocols must be applied. The DST supports the DEA in its current standards. What was lacking was the enforcement or policing of those standards.

Regarding Ms Mfulo’s question about the integration of social scientists in the work being done, Mr Matooane said that traditionally the DST and its entities were more aligned with the natural sciences. Only recently had social science been drawn into the main research arena at the DST. It used to have mono-disciplinary research, but now trans-disciplinary research efforts were being pursued because the DST recognised that there was no point in doing research in communities without working alongside them.

Dr Roman added to Mr Matooane’s statements about government and business and the lack of strong partnerships by saying that there was no one entity that anyone could lay the blame with. There was a need for a joint effort to promote strengthened relationships between the two, as well as with research entities, and it was something that they were working on.

The social sciences were integrated into the DST’s work. One example was the ecological infrastructure work which could not be done without social scientists working alongside hydrologists working in catchment areas to get the best data.

Regarding using international research funds and whether this influenced what topic was researched in South Africa, he said that for the Water and the Waste Road Maps, both were produced by the Water Sector and the Waste Sector. There were obviously international pressures that needed to be addressed, such as the topical issue of plastic in water, but this was only done where it was good for the country.

Mr Imraan Patel, Deputy-Director General: Socio-Economic Innovation Partners, DST, referred to the priorities of climate change, and whether they should be international or local. He said that in fact they should be both and that with an issue such as climate change, this stance was especially important because some of the models that were used in international negotiations were dominated by developed countries. South Africa had very strong capabilities at that level and so it was important for South Africa to strategically influence the conversation at that level. These were issues that must be managed on an on-going basis through being part of the global initiatives and projects. There should not be only a global approach, but also thinking through connections with countries in the global south, such as Brazil and the Atlantic Alliance, among others. There were all these arrangements that would be good to have South Africa involved, but it was important to make sure the science was beneficial to South Africa’s own developmental challenges, but broadly a balance had been reached.

Mr Patel said it was not only President Trump, but there were other big players that were putting pressure on the main agreement to keep the carbon dioxide emission levels down to prevent a two degree rise in the earth’s temperature. It was up to civil society and other governments all over the world to maintain the presence. It was interesting what was happening globally in regard to this. There were countries like China, which was an emerging country, and countries in the European Union and developing countries, which were now on the mitigation side to pick up the slack. It was hoped that this would be a short-term effort. What was interesting was that some of the large states like California were going contrary to their country’s recommendations, and were voluntarily reducing their carbon footprint.

Although there were a lot of conversations going on about climate change, there was not as much pressure as was seen five years ago, though this may change. There had been a very good report  produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that stated that even a two-degree rise was too high, and that one should be looking at a one and a half degree rise, so this was beginning to work itself into policy. There were interesting developments that were mitigating against the formal US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Business was also taking an interest in the issue of climate change as their consumer awareness rises.

On the question of the social sciences, and the under-representation in the DST, Mr Patel said there had been some studies done on the overall support given for some funding for the human and social sciences, and there had been an increase in funding. The challenge faced, however, was that of the interface between the social sciences and other challenges, which were not only about climate change. For example, in the fourth industrial revolution, there was going to have to be a lot of thinking about the future of work, and there would be a need for the social sciences. In the White Paper, part of the focus of the behavioural plan was the focus on the impact areas, and around those areas there was a need to organise the physical, engineering and social sciences to do this. There was a need to strike a balance. There was a need to fund social sciences but at the same time there was also a need to fund collaborative projects. 

Regarding how the R400 million was spent, Mr Patel said most of the funding went to universities and science councils. The DST also had a strong portfolio around their SADC work, getting involved with neighbouring communities because some issues, such as those involving water and forestry, transcend national boundaries.

There had been some effort to think through how best to innovate to build bigger and stronger linkages between business and government.

On the carbon emission issue, it was about enforcement. Mr Matooane had mentioned that the DEA was a very science-based department, and the DEA had approached the DST to ask how best to work jointly to get businesses to access cleaner technology to reduce carbon emissions. There was a need for business and government to work more closely together in this respect, sooner rather than later.

The DST consulted continuously about science and technology to ensure that the work they were doing was fully aligned to the international relations framework. They were formulating a framework for international strategies and focus. There were commitments from other countries through bilateral competitive programmes, where countries jointly put funding together and get researchers to work together. The National Committee on Climate Change (NCCC) includes businesses and NGOs, and they facilitate, coordinate and inform South Africa’s position during climate change negotiations internationally. The research informs strategy, and there was a national climate change response strategy. It was comprehensive, considers each sector, and looks at mitigation and adaptation for various issues. This document informs a lot of what is actioned around climate change in South Africa and research.

The DEA was leading a process of documenting South African environmental outputs, which would be very influential, because they set the tone and inform the next five-year period medium term strategic framework (MTSF plan). This deals with the issue of the mismatch between the various strengths, but DST takes the criticism and hopes to integrate it into the decadal planning.

The meeting was adjourned.  

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