The developmental dimension of Climate Change

The Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) recently delivered its first assessment on the State of Climate Action in South Africa (SOCASA). In addition to energy, transport, and water, a more equal and climate-resilient agriculture sector was specifically featured as a theme in the SOCASA report. 

While the report was being prepared, southern Africa experienced one of its hottest and driest summers, with record high temperatures being recorded in the region, in line with what is being experienced globally.

While high temperatures have generally been attributed to a strong El Niño system, the unusual pattern may be part of the broader climate change challenges.

Predictions are that the southern African region will be more severely affected by climate change due to anticipated disturbances of the region’s rainfall systems. Generally, the western parts of sub-Saharan Africa are expected to see hotter and drier conditions, while the eastern parts of the region are anticipated to experience higher temperatures, albeit wetter conditions. Severe weather events, including heat waves and storms (with increased risk of veldfires and flooding disasters) are expected across the region.

In line with these predictions, South Africa’s neighbouring countries experienced devastating drought over the past summer season. Significant crop failures of staple grains and oilseeds were experienced in Zambia and Zimbabwe with most of our other neighbouring countries likely to have to import such commodities.

South Africa’s own grain and oilseed harvest is expected to contract by approximately 19% from 2023 figures. Although South Africa will likely be able to meet its domestic demand for this staple food commodity, warning lights are starting to flash.

The PCC’s SOCASA report emphasises that our national climate and development policy framework enshrines small-scale agriculture as a key entry point for action that furthers climate resilience, livelihoods, and household food security in rural areas. This is so because agriculture is a primary economic activity in rural areas and many South African households rely on subsistence or small-scale agriculture to combat food insecurity.

The SOCASA report also records that entrenched spatial, racial, and gender inequality hinders the capacity of South Africa’s estimated two million small-scale farmers to mitigate and manage the impacts of climate change. This is particularly true for black and female South Africans, with black South Africans estimated to represent just one quarter of all formal farm owners.

Land reform and climate-smart agriculture (CSA) directly influences the achievement of sustainable agriculture and food security in South Africa.

The SOCASA report also shows that:

  • Land reform efforts, which have largely failed to change landholding patterns, demand greater transparency, efficiency, and equity.
  • The adoption of CSA practices by smallholder farmers, which has varied across the country, could be accelerated by strengthening the capacity of agricultural extension agents; enhancing partnerships between extension agents, small-scale farmers and commercial farmers; improving small-scale farmers’ access to capital; and enhancing the design of CSA technologies to meet farmers’ unique needs. 
  • More transformative shifts, including the diversification away from water-intensive crop varieties, are also required to ensure that small-scale farmers can withstand the severe climate impacts that are projected over the coming decades. 

As part of the PCC’s deliberations on climate change financing mechanisms and in response to inputs provided in that regard by the director-general of the National Treasury, Dr Duncan Pieterse, an interesting point arose: should climate change not be treated as a developmental issue rather than an environmental issue?

The implications thereof are perhaps more significant than at first meets the eye. For example, is the role of the National Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) not over-emphasised in that it would arguably be more sensible for government-led climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts to be spearheaded by the National Treasury and related bodies such as the Development Bank of South Africa?

The environmental causes of climate change are by now abundantly clear i.e. unabated man-made greenhouse gas emissions, primarily arising from the use of fossil fuels for energy generation. Is more information really required on the anticipated effects thereof? Or have we not moved beyond endless discussions and studies in that regard towards where it has now become far more of a developmental (i.e. financial) issue?

South Africa has arguably already seen the initial first steps in that direction. The positioning (to date) of a climate change commission has had the advantage of centralising efforts by government towards a just energy transition (JET) under the auspices of the presidency. This allows for crucial ministries and governmental officials, together with key private sector stakeholders to directly engage with the president and one another on the JET topic. From a private sector point of view, investment decisions are increasingly being informed by environmental, social and governance (ESG) and other information requirements.

The time has come to view climate change much more as a developmental and financial issue as opposed to an environmental one.