SRK’s Environmental scientists, Estie Retief and Ashleigh Maritz. Photography by Jeremy Glyn for SRK in May 2019.
JOHANNESBURG -  Adapting to climate change is about to become much closer to home for South African businesses – as the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) initiates moves aimed at making the country more resilient.

While our climate change policy framework has been in development since the early 2000s, there have recently been significant steps forward. These include the release of the draft Climate Change Bill and the Carbon Tax Bill. Last month, the long-awaited National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS) was issued for public comment; this type of planning is a key preventative measure.

These instruments carry an important message for business: climate change is happening, and we cannot mitigate all its effects; it is now necessary to adapt – quickly. South Africa ranks high among the world’s most significant carbon emitters per capita; it is therefore appropriate that the country signed up to the Paris Agreement on climate change. South Africa agreed to a peak, plateau and decline (PPD) trajectory that will see carbon emissions from fossil fuels (mainly coal) continue rising until 2030 – after which they should level out until 2035 and then start dropping. 

The question that is now becoming urgent is, ‘What do we do about these impacts in the meantime?’ Part of the answer is the subject of the NCCAS, which begins to chart a response to the now unavoidable impacts of climate change – many of which have in fact been felt for some years. The country has experienced extreme weather events more often, among them heat waves, longer dry spells and greater rainfall intensity.

According to the NCCAS, climate zones are already shifting, degrading ecosystems and landscapes and placing both terrestrial and marine systems under stress. There is particular concern about how we manage our water resources – by anticipating extreme events like droughts and floods, and addressing the risks they present. 

Such a strategy comes not a day too soon, as climate change trends are gaining momentum. In its efforts, the DEA is looking at throwing a wider net in terms of regulatory compliance. Currently, climate change impact assessments are only required in the environmental impact assessments (EIAs) of coal-fired power stations. 

South Africa has drafted a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy as part of the range of policy and regulatory responses to the ways that the changing climate will affect the country.


In a recent presentation to a Gauteng branch event of the International Association of Impact Assessment South Africa (IAIASA), officials said they anticipated a broader application of this provision in the near future. It will be interesting to see whether industries like cement, petrochemical, sugar cane, paper and forestry are in the department’s sights.  

The country should also be aware that climate change has its greatest impact on the poor, as high unemployment generally translates into low resilience in times of crisis. The NCCAS therefore also encourages social transformation, including this call to action: “Adaptation to climate change presents South Africa with an opportunity to transform the economy, strengthen the social and spatial fabric, and … build a climate resilient society.”

The good news is that there is potential financial support for these transformative initiatives in climate change adaptation from international funders. Infrastructure planners and developers can draw on these resources as they generate solutions to the climate change challenge.

Where the NCCAS may be strengthened is in its language on ongoing mitigation efforts. While climate change adaptation is clearly the necessary focus of the strategy, regulators and players should not take the foot off the mitigation pedal. Where the strategy “encourages” that more be done in mitigating our carbon footprint as a nation, we would suggest that a much firmer commitment is required. Indeed, vulnerability can be decreased through effectively implementing mitigation measures first; the better the mitigation, the less the adaptation required.

As public submissions to the NCCAS closed this week, it is hoped that this strategy will indeed facilitate urgent and integrated action at various levels of government and business. The country has the professional and technical expertise, and a willing spirit; the strategy now gives us more certainty of direction. Time, however, is not on our side.

Ashleigh Maritz and Estie Retief are Environmental Scientists at RK Consulting (SA). 

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