Erinvale, Somerset-West. 16.11.12. Former President Thabo Mbeki speaks at the WWF South Africa's Living Planet conference held on Friday, 16.11.12 at Erinvale Estate hotel. Picture Ian landsberg

FORMER president Thabo Mbeki called for African countries to work together to protect the continent’s natural resources, warning that climate change was not limited by political boundaries and that political will was needed to effect the necessary changes.

“The policy and structure to act continentally is there, but it is a question of political will,” he told the WWF SA Living Planet Conference in Somerset West yesterday.

“We are better off trying to solve problems as a region,” he said, warning that while the continent was better organised to work together to solve environmental problems than many regions, decisions made on a continental level often had no impact on what actually happened.

He cited lack of education about how human actions affected the environment among current and future leaders and ordinary citizens as one of the reasons more had not been done to help prevent further climate change.

“We have to sensitise them to the impact of certain behaviours. If you ask Africans what are our principal challenges, [climate change] wouldn’t be one of them. But it can be.”

Referring to governments that removed environmental regulations in order to attract corporations, Mbeki said: “We can’t compete to do the wrong thing.”

He also called on the South African government to remain open to further discussion on fracking, a controversial natural gas extraction method that has potential negative consequences such as water contamination. He cited the recent decision by Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, not to allow fracking in the state as evidence that the practice needed further study.

He also cautioned against over-using Africa’s abundant natural resources, such as natural gas and unused arable land, trading short-term economic growth for long-term environmental damage.

“If Africa is to capitalise on its strategic resource endowment, and utilise this position to rectify some of the global and local inequalities we face, we will need to ensure that we do not give away our crown jewels only to be left to clean up the mess after the party is over.”

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, another speaker at the conference, emphasised the need to balance the immediate needs of the growing population for food and other resources, with the need to protect the environment for future generations.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that more food will need to be produced in the next 50 years than was produced in the last 10 000 years. Other projections suggested that 77 percent of the power stations that would need be needed by 2030 had yet to be built.

Gordhan also called on South African scientists and businesses to develop green technologies rather than relying on the innovations of other countries.

WWF SA chairman Valli Moosa, in turn, asked Gordhan to champion their cause by mandating the use of low-tech and inexpensive measures to conserve energy in government buildings. “When electricity prices went up, people put in cheap technology to save energy,” he said. “If you asked the government to reduce their energy use by 30 percent in three years, they would do it.”

Weekend Argus