As environmental authorities, climatologists, conservationists and other stakeholders gathered provincial climate change workshop in Bloemfontein this week, The Weekly’s Martin Makoni took the opportunity to talk to the director for climate change adaptation in the Department of Environmental Affairs, Vhalinavho Khavhagali, about how the shift in weather patterns is affecting people across the world and more importantly, what the Free State and South Africa can do to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases that drive climate change. Excerpts:
What is climate change?
Climate change refers to the changes in the weather patterns, whereby our seasonal changes take longer or they are much shorter. They could be longer in the sense that you have got a dry season, which is our winter season in South Africa during which we do not receive any rainfall and becomes longer in that instead of receiving rainfall in October-November, we end up getting rains after January or February. That, in essence, if it takes longer, it becomes a cycle and that’s change in terms of climate.
And how does this affect our day-to-day living, in what ways are the effects of climate change visible in the lives of communities?
Most significantly, it affects issues around your ploughing season, the preparation of fields, it affects water availability, crop production and obviously the economic elements of that. So people who are dependent on water distribution won’t be able to do that business because there is no water available. Those depending on crop farming won’t be able to irrigate because there is no water available. Livestock farming will also be affected because some of the animals might actually suffer the consequences of not having enough water.
What exactly has influenced these changes in climatic conditions?
There are different elements which contribute to that. One, we need to locate the greenhouse gases, the emissions and obviously the other one is the land use changes that are obviously human induced. People are changing the forms and functions of land. Instead of agricultural land, it becomes a human settlement, either formerly or informally.
Another factor could be changing grasslands, like here in the Free State, we have beautiful grasslands which store a lot of carbon in their rooting system or in the soil… and when you transform that to human settlements you are actually releasing that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Those are some of the key elements that contribute to climate change. There are other elements like methane gases that also attributed to climate change but I think one key element is the mere fact that we are talking about fossil fuels, land use changes in terms of human induced activities.
You seem to be pointing at development, that it is the economic and other activities meant to improve the lives of people and their communities that drive climate change?
Not entirely. Development is important but I think we need to develop sustainably. We need to take precautionary measures when we are doing development because it is not only about carbon emissions. Development can also be about the utilisation of the emitted carbon.
I mean, we can use multiple ways to ensure that we capture that carbon back into the system. So, development here is in the sense that you want to grow the economy, but when you are doing that, be cognisant of the other multiple effects that activity could have on the environment. For example, transforming a piece of virgin land to a human settlement will result in some changes to the environment. But more importantly, it’s critical to ensure that even in the transformed landscape, you still allow the eco-systems to function properly.
But how feasible is it? How does one transform a piece of virgin land into a modern settlement, while at the same time ensuring the impact of settling people on that land and all the economic activity they engage in to survive will not damage the environment?
You will remember that part of the spatial planner’s role is to integrate environmentally friendly activities such as green parks or green space, ensuring that there is a drainage system that helps to irrigate those green spaces… and more importantly, we need to move in the direction of green buildings.
These are buildings that have a limited impact on the environment in that the building might not be heavily dependent on electricity and it can harvest the rain so that the water may be used at a later stage. The building itself must promote the greening of the environment. The environment has to breathe. You can’t just lay concrete all over.
Achieving sustainable development doesn’t seem to come cheap given the studies that have to be carried out before developing a piece of land as well as the actual work itself. How best can a developing country like South Africa which has limited resources, strike a balance in order to develop without compromising the environment?
Having limited resources doesn’t necessarily mean you cannot develop a piece of land in an environmentally friendly manner.
You simply need to use your resources efficiently and ensure that you address your developmental ambitions and address your needs as a country. Yes, as a developing country you are faced with a lot of challenges in terms of technology, capacity and finance. But the essence is to say, do more with the little that you have.
When transforming land from one form to another, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can just be reckless and use methods that are not environmentally friendly. It requires a lot of investment and I think that’s where most developing countries are moving towards. If we do not do that, we may end experiencing more of these intense or extreme events of climate change simply because we are not allowing the earth system to breathe. We need to strike a balance.
Industry normally takes a cue from government in matters like this, has the government been doing enough to show to all that it is possible to have development while safeguarding the environment at the same time?
The head office of the department of environmental affairs in Pretoria was built in the essence of saying we want to provide leadership in terms of the building cost, building standards and also showcase that it is doable. It has solar panels, it has got huge windows such that it allows natural light to come through and it has got that ambience around it which gives it a natural feel.
It is a performing green building with high energy and water efficiency.
And how possible is it to use that technology when building residential properties in terms of affordability and practicality to use?
It is very possible to do that. It’s just the will to do it. The world is filled with possibilities today than it has ever been before. It begins with you and me.
Wouldn’t we all want to live in houses where we don’t spend much on energy and water? These are two fundamental pieces of our livelihoods. Of course, it might be expensive to build such properties but if it means the long term cost of maintaining that property will be lower, I think it’s a very good deal. Some people are already moving to alternative energy in terms of cooking.
They are no longer dependent on electricity for cooking. Others with solar panels are beginning to realise that they can actually generate electricity and even give it to their neighbours. This is happening in Centurion, Pretoria. Most parts of South Africa receive enough sunlight during the course of the year to harvest and initiate this process. Turning to these alternatives could also be good for entrepreneurs as there are many opportunities available.
Not many people are interested in issues to do with climate change mainly because the subject seems foreign or something best left to the experts. There are also many people who simply believe climate change doesn’t quite affect them. Now, what’s your message to people out there? Should they be concerned about climate change?
People should not ignore the issue of climate change at all. In fact, climate change is not foreign.
If we go back to the days when we were young, we depended on some fountain or small stream that used to flow (naturally). We knew that the veld was going to burn at a certain time around June, July or August. And before we know it, it’s going to rain around October-November. So this thing has been there for many years. So, it’s not a foreign concept. It’s a foreign concept because of the word climate change. Seasons have been changing all these years because of human activity. It is therefore very important to preserve the environment.
And how is this provincial workshop going to help get everyone working to address climate change?
This workshop is aimed at raising awareness on climate change, sharing of knowledge and capacity building. We are working with different spheres of government including municipalities to find ways of addressing issues related to climate change and come up with a response strategy.