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Cape Town has a climate and ecological emergency

Until October 30, the City of Cape Town is requesting public participation on its climate change strategy document, a draft framework on how the city plans to respond to a more and more dramatic climate emergency. 

Governments and leaders around the world continue to fail implementation of urgent measures to keep global warming below 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level. To avoid the disastrous scenarios that can be expected if we go over this limit, science confirms, greenhouse gas emissions need to be curbed by half in the next 10 years and brought down to net zero by 2050.

In the 34-page document, the authors refer to catastrophic effects of climate change in the Cape region. In 2018, at the height of one of worst droughts ever experienced in the region, “Day Zero”, the day when the city would run out of water, was within arm’s reach. Radical water restrictions and strong rains in June saved the day. Scientists established that droughts like this in the Cape region have become three times more likely because of climate change.

In the years to come, Capetonians are prone to face more severe droughts, extreme heat, rising sea levels and coastal erosion, higher risk of wildfires, extreme winds and storms, food insecurity and biodiversity loss, the paper says. Further, poverty and the precarious living conditions that are prevalent in Cape Town’s jurisdiction make it harder for the city and its citizens to adapt to the increased frequency of climate shock events.   

Against the backdrop of these sombre predictions, the City of Cape Town’s climate change strategy and the highly anticipated climate change action plan are critical steps forward to set up a framework for the city and the people who live in it to respond to the emergency.

Mitigation and adaptation

The draft strategy outlines a series of desired outcomes and focus areas around the two main levers of mitigation and adaptation. Whereas mitigation strategies aim at reducing the output of greenhouse gas emissions to prevent further warming, adaptation strategies prepare the population and infrastructure to be more resilient when facing the expected climate shock events.

For each category, the paper outlines strategic focus areas and 35 goals in total, which differ greatly in their level of determination and commitment. Many are as fuzzy as goal one (“Reduce immediate risks to health during heat waves and high heat days”), whereas others describe concrete actions and timelines, such as goal 15 (“All existing municipal buildings to be net zero carbon by 2030”). However, the forthcoming climate action plan promises to shed light on more concrete measures and targets.

Dependence on Eskom

Overall, the strategy is hampered by many disclaimers: the dependence on the carbon-heavy national energy supply through Eskom puts limits to what Cape Town can achieve in terms of mitigation. This and other hurdles limit even the most ambitious of the three scenarios to a maximum of carbon reduction down to 10% of the 2016 levels by 2050.  Also, as a city within a developing country, “Cape Town is still expected to peak [emissions] before 2030,” the document says.

Worse, the strategy avoids setting the globally established “must do” goal of halving emissions by 2030, which effectively means the net zero 2050 target will become so much more unlikely to happen.

In their book The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, both leading figures who made the Paris agreement possible, are explicit about the timelines: “The goal of halving global emissions by 2030 represents the absolute minimum we must achieve if we are to have at least a 50% chance of safeguarding humanity from the worst impacts. We’re in the critical decade. “

It is reassuring that our head of state seems to have no doubt about the emergency either. In a recent weekly newsletter, President Ramaphosa wrote: “The coronavirus pandemic is devastating, but unless we act now, the effect of climate change on humanity will be catastrophic. Unless we act swiftly to significantly reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, we will be facing one state of disaster after another for many years to come.”

So let’s think of the world, South Africa and Cape Town having to pull off the biggest environmental and socioeconomic transformation since the industrial revolution within the next decade in order to avert unprecedented suffering and catastrophe.

Let that sink in for a moment. And now read the strategy paper again.

Limited vision

The document starts to take the wrong turn with the stated vision, the foundation of the strategy. It reads: “To become a city that is climate resilient, resource efficient and carbon neutral, in order to enable inclusive economic and social development and environmental sustainability.”

Is this vision ambitious enough in the context of addressing a worldwide, unprecedented existential crisis?  Under the circumstances, can a city’s, national government’s, or company’s vision exclude any notion of global responsibility? Why not create a vision that sees Cape Town as a leader in the fight against climate change, rather than a “me too”? Taking a leadership role would also open up economic opportunities.

The strategy touches on the often underestimated economic constraints worldwide mitigation policies will impose on big CO2 polluters such as South Africa in the near future. It highlights that in opposition to South Africa as a whole, Cape Town is “in many respects well placed to seek opportunities in a global green economy”.

One cannot help the feeling that the language of the strategy and the goals that have been set are not fully embracing the urgency of the crisis and the opportunities that may arise. Measures may or may not happen within the outlined scenarios.  The strategy draft suggests that becoming carbon neutral is a possibility, a should-do, not a must-do.

This crisis trump Covid

For seven months we’ve been experiencing a global health crisis that has triggered dramatic measures by governments and demanded many sacrifices by citizens around the world. South Africans have shown themselves determined and willing to act when facing an enemy that threatens their lives and livelihoods. The worldwide effects of climate change already overshadow the negative impact of Covid-19 and future events will further dwarf the impact of the pandemic on our society.

How long will we have to wait before we address climate change with a comparable level of determination and urgency? Let’s start by calling it what it is: Cape Town’s mayor Dan Plato must declare a climate and ecological emergency.

By calling it what it is – an emergency – the City of Cape Town would acknowledge the dire situation and the need for immediate action. More than 1 500 cities around the world and large constituencies including several national governments and the European Union have declared a climate emergency. Even though this has no direct legal implications, the declaration sends a strong signal to administration and citizens. We have a problem. Cape Town could be the first city in Africa to take this step, further solidifying its leadership role. 

South Africans and Capetonians are familiar with prudent and non-negotiable emergency measures. A common strategy to manage electricity, water and health crisis seems to be the establishment of a system of emergency levels. The closer we get to the 2030 deadline, the more likely we will see systems like this emerging to enforce critical emissions reduction. As emergency levels are escalating, we will see governments shutting down road traffic for certain periods (as the world has seen during the 1970s oil crisis) or only allowing cars with four passengers or more. Irresponsible waste generators will be banned from trading in certain jurisdictions or dirty energy will be prohibited. There’s no doubt even more radical consequences will follow as the global warming issue escalated further.  Governments must send a strong signal that we must take emergency level action now.

Escalating the issue could also mean having monthly or bimonthly TV addresses by the president informing all South Africans about the climate and ecological emergency we’re facing, the way he did during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The City of Cape Town’s climate strategy is a step in the right direction. Cape Town’s track record and achievements in becoming a greener city need to be acknowledged. Only last year the city received an A for climate action from the Carbon Disclosure Project. However, the strategy should be more ambitious and fully embrace the opportunity of Cape Town becoming a leader in the fight against climate change.

Once we truly understand we’re in a global emergency, strategic considerations will have to be more radical about the measures we must take to survive. 

Author

  • Michael Wolf

    Michael Wolf is half Swiss, half German and 100% Capetonian. He is founder and chief executive at Formula D interactive, an award-winning consultancy designing interactive visitor experiences. For many years, he was complacent about the climate and ecological emergency. He believed world leaders would surely do something about this soon. They are not. In 2019, Michael joined Extinction Rebellion, a global network that believes it is a citizen’s duty to rebel using peaceful civil disobedience when faced with criminal inactivity by its government. He writes in his own capacity.