Boosting South Africa’s climate change readiness

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University of Cape Town (UCT) scientists have partnered with the University of the Witwatersrand to undertake research to guide the South African government’s efforts over the next decade to help prepare the country for extreme weather events associated with climate change.

The identified risks include an upswing in fires, flooding and droughts, and the work of UCT’s African Climate and Development Initiative (ACDI) – along with the Global Change Institute (GCI) at the University of the Witwatersrand – will help inform future research and funding priorities.

With climate change expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events not only in South Africa but across the southern African region, there is recognition of the urgent need for the country to fine-tune a strategy to efficiently and effectively adapt as and where necessary.

Co-led by the ACDI and the GCI, the study was commissioned by the national Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) and funded by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) at UCT also participated.

The DEA’s mandate was for the research team to identify gaps in South Africa’s adaptation research agenda and to provide practical suggestions to ensure the uptake of future relevant research. This information was to guide the department in the assessment of its research and funding priorities over the next five to 10 years.

Katinka Lund Waagsaether, a researcher at the CSAG, said the ACDI followed a multidisciplinary and complex systems approach to the task.

“We didn’t only want to come up with a list of research gaps, based on a desktop study. We wanted to understand the barriers and enablers in the local adaptation landscape, as well as provide an approach for future studies.”

This project, she suggested, offers an example of how climate change researchers can generate knowledge that matters, in collaboration with their partners.

Co-creating knowledge

“Academia has a lot to offer government, and researchers have a lot to learn in this process of co-creating knowledge,” Waagsaether added.

Roland Hunter, an ACDI scientist involved in the project, explained that the research team started out by reflecting on how the country’s adaptation agenda has evolved over recent decades.

“We wanted to know what has been done so far, and how much of it has been integrated into planning and implementation. We then focused on what knowledge is needed, by whom, for what and in what format.”

The team analysed South Africa’s Long Term Adaptation Scenarios (LTAS) Flagship Research Programme, one of the first programmes launched in terms of the country’s National Climate Response White Paper in 2011. This came as the adaptation challenge became more prominent in both national and global discourse, providing information for South Africa’s climate negotiators at United Nations (UN) events.

The LTAS also informed the country’s adaptation policy and planning processes at both national and provincial level.

Hunter explained that the first LTAS phase was mostly about capturing climate projections and responses.

“The second phase started delving into macro-economic impacts and what adaptation will mean for our economy and social systems.”

Although the programme proved useful in aiding understanding of broad-scale climate risks and adaptation issues, and in informing climate response policies, it had limitations.

Waagsaether added that there has also been a lack of follow-up activities aimed at ensuring the use of the LTAS findings.

“The underlying data, although it is based on good science, is not accessible. It provides insufficient information on current climate risks and on the attribution of climate change. Research on the ‘softer’ aspect of adaptation – the social stuff – is also sparse.”

Attribution science, put simply, helps quantify the contribution of various mechanisms, including the human factor, to changes in Earth’s climate, as well as the probability of extreme weather events.

Adaptation research

The ACDI’s study determined that South Africa has, however, made good progress with adaptation research, with the LTAS contributing in many ways.

“South Africa’s adaptation landscape is a rich tapestry, [and] we have actually done a lot in this space,” said Waagsaether.But learning exchanges and the uptake of adaptation research have been inconsistent.

“The adaptation space is very fragmented, and there are many information platforms out there,” she said.

In addition, while much knowledge on adaptation has been generated, it is not systematically curated anywhere.

“You have to dig to find it and also know where to dig,” Waagsaether pointed out.

Based on their analysis, the ACDI researchers suggest reflecting more critically on South Africa’s adaptation research landscape before plunging into another LTAS or similar process.

“We have enough information available to implement much-needed adaptation responses. We should now maybe reflect on the reasons why all of the existing knowledge (such as the LTAS outputs) is not being absorbed more widely,” Waagsaether suggested.

Currently, learning exchanges are also taking place in “adaptation bubbles”. These are nodes of knowledge and sharing, often involving the same people.

 “This is not necessarily moving the adaptation agenda or its implementation forward,” she commented.

The study findings determined that South Africa needs more inter- and transdisciplinary research, as well as a better understanding of the economics of adaptation and the interaction between sectors, among other things.

“We also need more research that is practitioner-led rather than science-led,” Waagsaether said.

It remains crucial to plan adaptation research agendas within the context of how knowledge is generated and used.

“We are now at a point where it is time to rethink and configure our knowledge and learning system for climate change adaptation. Our adaptation options come into a messy, real-world space and [into] the systems that we live in. We need to use this complexity as a starting point to understand adaptation within the real world.”

She added that a knowledge commons is also needed to ensure that “knowledge travels”.

Reconfiguring knowledge

“This is not necessarily a physical space or an online platform, but a dynamic system with many components and users. It is also time to pop these adaptation bubbles and involve more people in this [adaptation] space that affects us all.”

According to the research team, there is merit in the further investigation of the role of the political economy in adaptation efforts, and of contradictions between South Africa’s energy and water policies.

There is also a need to consider the potential trade-offs and points of conflict between South Africa’s proposed response to climate change and the country’s current socio-economic transformation and development priorities, such as the National Development Plan.

Hunter stressed that climate change adaptation needs offer many possible synergies with the country’s development needs.

“Our research underlines that development and climate change are intrinsically linked, and this connection should be kept in mind when planning future sustainable development.

“We now just have to make this happen, collectively,” he said.

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