• Hot issue

    Africa is taking steps to ramp up action on reversing climate change

    Hot issue

    The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) was a move in the right direction for Africa, even if the overall outcomes won’t be radical enough to slow down global warming to the long-agreed limit of 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level.

    A noteworthy gain, however, is the US$8.5 billion finance package promised to South Africa by the UK, US, France, Germany and the EU to ease its transition from fossil fuels towards a low-carbon economy.

    ‘This is a really big deal,’ says Christopher Trisos, director of the Climate Risk Lab at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) African Climate and Development Initiative. The lab builds tools based on environmental and social-science research to predict climate-change risks and how to respond appropriately. ‘South Africa has missed out previously on securing very large amounts of finance for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to renewable energy,’ says Trisos. ‘However, the devil will be in the details. If done well, it could provide a powerful case study for transitioning other developing economies that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. One key factor for success is using the funds to transition to renewables, such as solar, and to support South African workers and industries through this transition, rather than support more expensive “clean-coal” technologies.’

    To assist companies with this transition, the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) recently asked for public comment on its Sustainability and Climate Disclosure Guidance. This set of documents – another gain for Africa, following COP26 – will go a long way towards helping listed companies make sense of the complexities of sustainability reporting and embed climate risk in their operations. The final disclosure guidance is due to be published in 2022.

    Looking back, 2021 was the year that really shook the world awake to the climate crisis. For one, the ongoing COVID-19 upheaval linked climate change to viral spillovers, from wildlife to humans. Then, in early 2021, the Dasgupta Review on the Economics of Biodiversity was groundbreaking, as it detailed the economic importance of nature and the financial cost of climate risk and biodiversity loss. This was followed by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report – dubbed ‘Code Red for humanity’ – which gave an alarming prognosis for the world, and Southern Africa in particular.

    The region is already heating up at twice the global rate and will increasingly experience extreme weather events, such as more frequent and intense heatwaves, droughts and floods.

    ‘Yet those who contributed least to the problem are often those most vulnerable to the impacts of the effects we are starting to see,’ says Jess Schulschenk, director of the Sustainability Institute (SI), a research body in Stellenbosch. Africa is home to 17% of the global population but produces less than 5% of global annual carbon emissions and accounts for just 3% of global cumulative emissions, according to PwC’s Africa Energy Review 2021.

    Schulschenk underlines the continent’s vulnerability to the deeply interconnected global climate risks that reinforce social and economic issues, such as the erosion of social cohesion, loss of livelihoods and rising debt.

    Increasingly, Southern Africa is set to experience extreme weather events, such as intense heatwaves, droughts and floods

    ‘We find ourselves part of this intricate web where you tug at one string and it has a ripple through the system,’ she said during a webinar series on climate change, hosted by corporate-responsibility consultancy Trialogue, the SI and the Institute of Directors South Africa (IoDSA).

    ‘Not only is climate a significant one of those threads; it actually has ripples that are affected and reinforced by many other threads – some social and some financial, but all deeply connected. We require science-informed country- and company-level commitments and actions, with urgency.’

    To act effectively, you need fully to under-stand and be up to date with the climate crisis. To assess how clued up Africa is on this subject, a team of researchers conducted the first continent-wide survey of climate-change literacy. It shows that the national climate-change literacy rate in Africa averages at only 37% – far lower than in Europe and North America, where rates are generally above 80%. There were also large variations between (and even within) the 33 surveyed African countries. ‘The climate-change literacy rate is 66% in Mauritius and 62% in Uganda, but only 25% in Mozambique and 23% in Tunisia,’ say the authors. ‘By far the strongest predictor of climate-change literacy is education.

    ‘Compared to those with no formal schooling, those who completed a high-school degree are 19% likelier to be climate-change literate. Those who complete a university education are 36% more likely to be climate-change literate.’ Statistically, being wealthy, urban or male means you’re better informed about climate change.

    Nonetheless, even top-level corporate decision-makers still display limited understanding of the science behind climate change and the latest agreements, according to a recent IoDSA member survey. As part of the Trialogue webinar series, the survey revealed that 40% of the responding company directors could not comfortably explain the causes of global warming. Furthermore, less than 33% of respondents were aware that COP26 was taking place. Just 21% of the directors considered the JSE’s ‘net zero by 2050’ commitment to be relevant to their business, while a mere 28% considered the decision by the G7 and G20 to stop financing foreign, new coal projects to be relevant to their business. Yet both these decisions will massively affect South African companies, which shows that corporate leadership needs to urgently improve their understanding of climate-related risks.

    ‘Climate change and the risks and opportunities it presents for the private sector absolutely need to be tackled at the board level, because they will affect the long-term profitability and sustainability of many businesses,’ says Trisos. ‘Anticipating the risks requires both deep sector expertise and knowledge of how climate risks can cascade across sectors. A good place to start is to break the assessment into smaller parts focused on climate hazards, exposure, vulnerability and response options. The next step is to build up the complexity from there. This can lead to more actionable insights.’

    There’s a variety of tools to help companies address climate risk and net zero carbon in their operations and value chain, ranging from the Science-Based Targets initiative and the Future-Fit Business Benchmark on Climate Action, via the Embedding Project and the Transition Pathway Initiatives, to the recommendations of the Task-Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures and BLab’s Climate Justice Playbook for Business. In all this, science-based, cross-sector collaboration is key. That’s why Stellenbosch University’s (SU) newly launched trans-disciplinary School for Climate Studies – the only one of its kind in South Africa – has been met with ‘exceptional’ interest. ‘We’ve had enquiries from national and international organisations, both from universities and the private sector, as well as governments,’ says Eugene Cloete, SU professor and deputy vice-chancellor of research, innovation and postgrad studies.

    ‘The French government has given us a sponsored research chair for climate studies for five years, starting in January 2022.’

    The school is also collaborating with the Global University Alliance on Climate as the only participating African member, and engaging with corporates from various sectors. ‘We have an agreement with IBM, which is making their data available to us and have also partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT],’ says Cloete.

    Incidentally, the prestigious MIT launched a climate-focused school in the US around the same time as SU opened the one in Africa. Here students are encouraged to continuously interact across all faculties, combining environmental and social sciences, engineering, law and other disciplines, to come up with innovative solutions to the climate crisis.

    ‘The only way to counter misinformation about climate change is with scientific evidence,’ says Cloete, who stresses that on top of its research and teaching mandate, the school is solving real-world problems and delivering on social impact as well as commercialisation. Many solutions involve renewable energy, such as the recent project that brought off-grid computers to rural Limpopo, providing community members with free internet access in a converted container. The idea is to replicate and scale the model in other parts of the country and possibly elsewhere in Africa.

    At the UCT Climate Lab, Trisos explains why it’s crucial to look beyond your own field of expertise when tackling climate change. ‘Our research has advanced risk assessments to integrate risks from both changing climate hazards and risks from moving economies to clean energy,’ he says.

    ‘Many existing assessments look at only one of these factors, which is just half the picture. For example, an assessment looking only at the expense to transition to renewable energy misses the massive savings in avoided loss and damages that come from stabilising the climate by not burning fossil fuels. The government and the private sector have to look at both to get a full picture of climate risks for their sector or industry.’

    This is already starting to happen, but if 2021 was the year of COP26, the ‘Code Red’ report and COVID, 2022 must become the year of aggressive, full-picture and urgent climate action.

    By Silke Colquhoun
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images