Two new expert reports explore what life in South Africa will be like over the course of the next 50 years if we continue with a business-as-usual approach to climate change. Their findings are unequivocal: unless we act now, climate change will become increasingly dangerous, for everyone.
The reports, commissioned by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) for the African Climate Alliance, groundWork, the Vukani Environmental Movement in Action, both examine what life in southern Africa will look like if we continue on the current “worst case scenario” climate trajectory, leading to global surface temperature increases of 3°C to 4°C above the 20th century average in the second half of the century.
Southern Africa warming at twice the global rate
The first report, titled Climate impacts in southern Africa during the 21st Century, examines how climate harms will impact the southern African region, with a particular focus on changes to long-term weather patterns, agriculture and food security, water availability and biodiversity.
The report was authored by the late Prof Bob Scholes, a National Research Foundation A-rated scientist and professor of systems ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and Prof Francois Engelbrecht, Professor of Climatology at the Global Change Institute (GCI) at Wits and invited Lead Author of Working Group I of Assessment Report Six of the IPCC.
The report underscores the fact that southern Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change, with warming in the interior of southern Africa occurring at about twice the global average rate.
“Substantial changes in the number of extreme temperature events in southern Africa can already be detected,” confirms Engelbrecht. “Further drastic increases in events such as heat waves, high fire-danger days and oppressive temperatures impacting on human comfort and health can be expected under futures in which climate change mitigation efforts are low or unsuccessful.”
The report also concludes:
- A high likelihood that agricultural production in southern Africa will be reduced and eventually collapse under low mitigation futures, while livestock production, including meat and milk, will also become unviable.
- Freshwater availability, already critically limited in southern Africa, will be reduced in the future as a result of decreasing rainfall and increasing evaporation.
- The risk of severe storms, including intense tropical cyclones and very intense thunderstorms, long-term droughts and heatwaves, will increase with climate change in southern Africa. As a result, loss of life, injury and damage to infrastructure will also increase.
- Thousands of species, many occurring only in southern Africa, are at increased risk of premature extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. This loss has negative consequences for human wellbeing and the economy, as well as weakening the capacity to adapt to climate change.
Future generations will be profoundly negatively impacted by climate change
The second report, authored by global change expert Prof Nicholas King, considers what basic lifestyles and services will look like for future generations by 2030, 2040 and beyond, with a particular focus on the Western Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, due to climate change impacts.
The report paints a dire picture of the “enormous negative physical, socio-economic and ecological impacts” that South Africa will experience under all climate change scenarios.
In particular, the report warns that these impacts will include extreme heat stress, extreme weather events, including storms, flooding and droughts, sea-level rise and coastal damage, crop failures and food insecurity, water stress, disease outbreaks, various forms of economic collapse and social conflict and mass migration to informal settlements around urban areas.
According to Prof King: “Impacts do not rise linearly with rising temperature, but with an ever-steepening curve, rapidly making large parts of the interior of the country, as well as vulnerable low-lying coastal areas, uninhabitable. All of these impacts together will dramatically alter the lives and prospects for today and tomorrow’s youth, who will suffer significant harms, in a combination of detrimental physical health and wellbeing, mental trauma, social upheaval and reduced opportunities for self-advancement.”
For example, in the Western Cape between 2021 and 2040, the report predicts that “residents of massively expanding informal settlements such as Khayelitsha will spend much of their days waiting in queues at standpipes where these exist, or paying exorbitant prices for tanker water.”
In Limpopo, between 2041 and 2060, temperatures will increase to the point that it will “almost certainly be too hot to work outdoors for most of the year, curtailing almost all agricultural fieldwork and manual labour.”
Moreover, due to the fact that Limpopo will no longer be able to depend on rain-fed agriculture and rangeland grazing for livestock, “food insecurity will very likely quickly become a major cause of socio-economic stress. Commercial farmers will likely struggle to obtain sufficient irrigation water, and conflict over water use and allocations will rise.”
After 2041, Mpumalanga’s dire socio-economic conditions will almost certainly be exacerbated by the “coal-death-spiral being brought about by the necessary country-wide transition away from coal to renewable energy”. According to King, without an immediate, proactive just transition, “the collapse of any visible future potential for education, employment and self-advancement for the young adults in the region will cause significant mental trauma.”
The findings of both reports will be unpacked during a live webinar, hosted by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), in partnership with the African Climate Alliance (ACA) and Vukani Environmental Movement (VEM) on 28 September 2021 at 11h00, register here.
The Centre for Environmental Rights is a non-profit organisation and law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa. As a group of activist lawyers, the CER helps communities and civil society organisations in South Africa to realise our Constitutional right to a healthy environment by advocating and litigating for environmental justice.
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