Climate change could pose a major challenge to the South African economy, with water shortages and increasing aridity affecting agriculture, industry and urban settlement, experts have warned.
Releasing the preliminary results of a study on climate change for the continent on April 17, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that agricultural production, including access to food, could be compromised across Africa and land suitable for agriculture, particularly in regions close to semi-arid and arid areas, set to decrease.
According to Guy Midgley, a South African scientist and a one of the authors of the report, the cost of dealing with the implications of climate change could reach as much as 10% of gross domestic product (GDP). Immediate action needs to be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change, he said.
"That is not to say that government is not doing anything about it. There have been a lot of behind-the-scenes talks with the government and the Water Affairs and Forestry Department," said Midgley.
Environmental expert Victor Munnik has also been ringing alarm bells over the implications of climate change for South Africa. In order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the country's transport system will have to be radically overhauled, energy prices raised dramatically, and urban planners will have to take climate change and water shortages into account in further developments, he said to the local press on April 17.
A whole new form of politics will have to be developed, in which environmental justice is being sought, added Munnik.
Another potential impact on the South African economy will be the effects of migration, as those in rural areas abandon land no longer suitable for agriculture and move to urban centres, putting further strain on resources in those areas and increasing unemployment.
With some of South Africa's major export markets such as the EU looking to create a global carbon price through emissions trading that puts a clear cost on pollution, Peet du Plooy, a trade and investment adviser with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), said the country's dependence on cheap electricity generated by coal-fired power stations could cost it dear.
"The government's stance means that local companies will have to individually bear the cost to neutralise through offsets. This could severely compromise their competitiveness," said Du Plooy on April 17.
In July, the government is set to table legislation before the parliament that it hopes will codify best practices to protect the environment and promote improved water use. Apart from laying out requirements on waste processing and recycling and minimising the consumption of natural resources, the Waste Management Bill outlines new standards for emission reductions, efficient use of water and the preservation of water resources.
However, Rafeek Shah, the opposition Democrat Alliance environmental spokesman, said on April 18 that the government had yet to produce concrete measures to combat climate change or to respond to its implications.
Despite the warnings contained in numerous reports about the implications of climate change for South Africa, the country still does not have a climate-change strategy, he said.
Environment Minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk "needs to urgently explain what his plan is to, firstly, mitigate the consequences of South Africa's industrial development on the environment and, secondly, minimise the effects of predicted climate change," said Shah.
South Africa's government is in the position of having to perform a balancing act, on the one hand encouraging the growth of industry and energy generation to boost the economy, while on the other hand trying to promote environmental awareness, protect the long-term prospects of the rural population and preserve limited resources.
If the increasingly strident warnings by experts on climate change are correct, it will be a tough act to keep on the stage.