Is the weather really changing? Is global warming real? We hear so many conflicting opinions that many of us don’t know whether to head for the hills or stick our heads in the sand.

I love the taste of solar-powered coffee in the morning. A nice strong cup, freshly ground, and served by electrical engineer Professor Willie Cronje in his office in the Chamber of Mines Building at Wits.

On the roof is a set of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which provides electricity to the building, including Cronje’s coffee machine. “It’s giving us the opportunity to see how renewable energy can complement the electricity we get from City Power on campus,” explains Cronje, who is the new Alstom Chair for Clean Energy Systems Technology (ACCEST).

“We’ve run the PV system for a year without any maintenance issues and we are keen to build on it for Wits. The University has the ideal rooftop space for solar panels. It would lower the carbon footprint and show a significant saving in electricity.”

Weather gone wayward

Cronje is passionate about energy and getting citizens to think about changing the way they meet their energy needs in a changing landscape where we are depleting and destroying the planet’s natural resources, including fossil fuels. This has all manner of side effects, including weather gone wayward.

Enjoying a cuppa with us is Professor Mary Scholes from the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences. If you want to talk about the weather and climate change, speak to Scholes.

In 2013 she attended a global powwow in Geneva to negotiate solutions to global emissions, climate change and the future of the planet via a group of goals called the Sustainable Development Goals.

“These goals, which are set to replace the Millennium Development Goals, are negotiated by the governments of the world with the intention of improving the overall wellbeing of society and the planet through behavioural and attitudinal change,” Scholes explains.

In short, unless we change the way we think and behave in terms of excess, wastage, carbon emissions and abuse of our natural resources, our chances of survival are not looking rosy. Climate change is symptomatic of this, we’re told.

Is climate change real?

But is climate change real, are humans causing it and should we really be concerned?

“Yes, it is most certainly real, and yes, humankind and industrial development is responsible for about 75% of the changes we are seeing in global temperatures and ambient CO2 concentrations,” Scholes replies.
“The reason the temperatures are rising and rainfall patterns are changing – which is what we call climate change – is that the CO2 concentrations or greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are increasing.”

Climate change or global warming is part of a bigger problem that we call global change, she explains.

“Global change includes the full economic, environmental and social change linked to changes in climate. So, for example, if the intensity of the rainfall increases, resulting in floods, then people are often displaced, which has all sorts of social and economic impacts, including insurance and reinsurance.”

Climate denialism

So why would anyone deny that climate change or global change is real? A Google search unearths spates of feisty climate denialism from cranks and authoritative-sounding sources alike.

“There are a number of critics who say that throughout time there have been fluctuations in CO2 and oxygen concentrations on the planet and that it has existed under far higher concentrations,” Scholes responds.

The critics’ contention is that it is a well-known cycle and that it is alarmist and sensationalist to claim it is threatening our survival. Many climate denialists claim this is propaganda mongering by the enemies of the oil and gas companies.

Not the kind of planet that humans could inhabit

Scholes is aware of the conspiracy theories but says the answer is simple: “While fluctuations certainly occurred throughout our planet’s history, the kind of planet Earth that existed millions of years ago when the concentrations were higher is not the kind of planet Earth that humans could inhabit.”

On top of this, the periods of glacial and interglacial change that formerly lasted 400 000 years are now happening in 50 years because of escalating concentrations of CO2 and CO2-equivalent or “carbon emissions”, predominantly from the burning of fossil fuels.

“If you look at the CO2 concentrations over the 400 000 years when the planet was cold and covered in ice, there were 180 parts per million (ppm) CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Then the ice melted and the CO2 concentration went up to 280ppm. The line wavered between 180ppm and 280ppm until we got to the 1600s and the start of rapid industrialisation. Today we sit with 400ppm, in other words the highest concentration in the last 500 000 years.”

Humans are comfortable at 18 degrees C

And while this is still significantly lower than the period prior to that, humankind does not have enough time to adapt. Humans are comfortable at 18 degrees C, which is the global mean temperature. However, the planetary temperature is rising by one to six degrees. Over the Antarctic peninsula the air temperature has already risen by six degrees in the last 100 years, which is why the ice shelves and glaciers are melting.

The further away from the equator, the more dramatic are the changes in temperature. “Because there is less land mass as you move towards the poles, the changes are felt more acutely,” Scholes explains.

At the same time, hot areas like Saudi Arabia will get hotter.

“Climate scientists worldwide are putting together predictive models to determine where you get will higher and lower temperature increases. Modelling for South Africa predicts a 1.5-2 degree rise in the next 100 years. It takes only a 2.5-5 degree rise to change the planet into an environment that will be very uncomfortable for humans to inhabit, but this will be felt differently across the globe,” says Scholes. She adds that we are already beyond the point of no return, and into what is known as the Anthropocene period, where people are the major drivers of the functionality or non-functionality of our planet.

South Africa is in a tricky position

South Africa and other developing countries are in a tricky position because we are on an upward development curve, which needs to be carefully managed.

The South African government has committed to reducing the country’s carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025 off a “business as usual” trajectory.

Emissions from transport account for at least 12% of South Africa’s total greenhouse gas emissions (CO2-equivalent or carbon emissions) that cause global warming. About 87% of this is from the combustion of diesel and petrol on our roads. Trends show that transport emissions are growing the fastest.

South Africa has to decide how best to achieve its development objectives while transforming the economy from one of high emissions intensity to a low-carbon economy that includes green jobs.

Which sectors and activities will need to shrink, and which must grow?

We have to move away from private cars to public transport

In our cities we have to move away from private cars towards public transport. In our freight transport we have to move from the roads back to the rails. How can this be achieved in a society where the first item people want to buy when they start earning more is a motor vehicle and where our railways leave much to be desired?

These are some of the issues the WWF Nedbank Green Trust’s low-carbon transport programme is currently researching.

“Our research and engagement is across business, labour and government to find transport solutions in the passenger and freight sectors that deliver emission reductions, economic development and social equity,” says Louise Naudé, who heads the programme.

The Gauteng government has plans around public transport, including integrated bus, train and taxi networks based on a one-ticket system. So, for example, people will be able to get off their bus or taxi and catch their train right there without having to walk long distances between stations or buy multiple tickets.

Public transport needs to be a safe, pleasant and convenient experience, and stations need to be welcoming, safe places, Naudé explains. However, even with improved public transport, we still have the problem of trying to get people out of their private motor vehicles and into public transport.

“We are currently researching how best to incentivise all income groups to use public transport. At the same time we are researching what effect this would have on the motor vehicle manufacturing industry and the jobs it provides. We look at the web of cause and effect loops in our model.”

Getting the railways back in good working order

In the freight sector the programme is researching the emissions per commodity per mode, such as moving coal on trains or foodstuffs on trucks. It’s also looking at the costly and complex issue of getting the railways back in good working order.

“WWF’s standpoint is that we have to commit to systems that will reduce our emissions. We cannot afford to invest in infrastructure and other initiatives that take us in the wrong direction, hence WWF’s ‘Seize Your Power’ campaign, which calls for investment to be shifted from fossil fuels into renewables,” she says.

The shift from coal-based energy provision in South Africa cannot take place for many years, even decades, because we are heavily dependent on coal and other fossil fuels for the generation of electricity and energy.

We need to conserve oil for key products

Cronje says it’s a non-debate as to when this should happen and whether we should be using fossil fuels or renewables: “Right now and for the foreseeable future we need both,” he says. “We need the government to invest in renewables while continuing with coal and oil to meet our escalating energy and electricity needs. Fossil fuels are definitely going to get even more expensive than they already are and the reserves are dwindling. We will need to conserve a fossil fuel like oil for the production of key products such as plastic and use renewables for electricity and energy.”

Blessed with abundant sunshine

Since South Africa is blessed with abundant sunshine – a natural resource that cannot be depleted – Cronje says it’s a “mystery” why we haven’t started using it in earnest. “In my mind we have to look at renewables in all their shapes and forms, including solar, wind, wave and biomass energy, which is what the Europeans are doing.

“We need a far more distributed energy generation system with an improved electrical energy supply, where we move away from being as reliant on the national grid as we are now. Households and communities need to become more independent and produce a larger portion of their own energy, and ideally receive tax rebates and incentives for doing so,” he explains.

The fact that Eskom cannot currently supply enough energy, in the form of electricity, to meet South Africa’s growing demand is already forcing developers to look carefully at the use of renewable energy sources in their new designs and projects. This will have a positive knock-on effect, such as bringing down the price of solar photovoltaic panels by growing the demand for it.

South Africa will then finally start harvesting its wealth from the sun and all over the country we’ll be switching on our solar-powered kettles, making delicious renewable-energy beverages, sporting carbon-neutral clothes produced by off-grid factories and catching the wind-powered underground to our energy-efficient offices. Welcome to the future.

Climate change resilience for South African cities

Wits and local government are working together to understand how South African cities can respond to climate change. The Wits SARChI Chair in Development Planning and Modelling, working together with a range of Wits academics and the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), is partnering with municipalities in Gauteng in a Department of Science and Technology-funded project on sustainable and resilient cities.

The team leading the research includes Dr Daniel Irurah, senior lecturer in the Wits School of Architecture and Planning.

Irurah is interested in making cities more efficient, in terms of both the urban fabric and related architecture and the underlying services. This includes water supply and water quality, renewable energy and energy efficiency, and how people travel, which connects to issues such as density, public transport corridors and integrated residential development.

“Climate change is the big motivator today but socio-economically and politically we should have been working towards these goals long ago because you cannot effectively govern a city that is fragmented by race, income or other group types. Correcting this in South African cities is long overdue,” says Irurah.

“There are many examples from regions such as Latin America and Europe, which can confer lessons on how people co-exist across class, race, culture and other categories. Yet we continue to reinforce a mindset of segregation in South Africa. We need our sociologists and human behaviourists to explain this because it is one of the critical threats, especially in relation to civil unrest. Inadequate housing and services is most pronounced in the low-income groups, which are typically located on the outskirts of our cities.

“On renewable energy, there has been some movement in solar water heating for subsidised housing but this is not anywhere close to where we need to be. Subsidised housing is inadequately designed even for basic shelter needs. These houses are freezing cold in winter, which means people heavily rely on electric heaters, and they are boiling hot in summer. The majority of South African households also rely on electricity for cooking and the tariffs keep going up. They have no control over this and neither do they have control over their water supply as they do not have rainwater storage systems – which will become essential for all households in a water-stressed country like South Africa.

“We are going to face a water crisis even faster than a rising temperature crisis, and we can no longer rely solely on conventional infrastructure. We need water recycling and rainwater harvesting at household and community levels.

“We also need to look at diverse scales of electricity supply, including solar technologies and biogas, using digesters to transform organic waste resources into energy. This calls for a reappraisal of our whole infrastructure system, from our national electricity grid to our sewerage.

“This also requires leadership at every level and Wits’ Global Change & Sustainability Research Institute (GCSRI) is leading a pilot project with the German Development Agency GIZ on ‘Climate Change Leadership’. We are running a series of workshops with different climate leadership themes, such as Leadership for Sustainable Energy Transitions, for which I serve as the convener.

“The workshops are about trans-disciplinary creation of knowledge around climate change leadership and the mitigation/adaptation challenges we will be confronting as a result of climate change. We believe the first step is to empower people to be agents of change within the social networks in which they are located.

“Every one of us is the point at which change has to start – but we first need to feel a sense of responsibility, agency and empowerment to act and to be involved. If we think these issues are way beyond us then there is no chance for change.

“The climate crisis is as much an environmental crisis as it is a socio-political threat. If we don’t understand this we are facing a serious risk of civil unrest and violence which could be precipitated by emerging additional constraints which climate change will impose on our development pathways. And once this happens it is extremely difficult to repair the damage or get people back on the track of trust and cooperation.”

The weather report

Professor Mary Scholes from the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences predicts: in the next 50-100 years, the western side of South Africa – from Beaufort West towards the Atlantic Ocean – will be getting drier with a 10-15% decrease in rainfall.

Cape Town is different because of the ocean’s influence. It probably won’t be getting drier but the winter rainfall period might become shorter.

The rest of the country will receive about the same amount of rainfall except for the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastal area, which will have a 7-10% increase in rainfall.

The severity of storms will become a serious issue with high winds and high intensity storms occurring to a much greater degree.

With a shorter duration of the rainy season in many areas – where the rains start later and finish earlier – farmers will need to plant seed that can germinate in a shorter period.

Science is showing the fruit-producing sector in the Western Cape, for example, will be confronted with increasing, extreme climate variability and we need to know how to reduce these risks and impacts.

In the Grabouw-Villiersdorp apple and pear growing area, for example, farmers are concerned about not getting long enough periods of cold in winter, which the apples and pears require during their dormancy stage. Instead, they are getting waves of warm weather during the winter, which is triggering premature budding that has a negative impact on yield.

Another example of climate-related harm is in the stone fruit sector (peaches, apricots, plums, nectarines) of the Little Karoo (from Worcester to Robertson to Oudtshoorn), where growers are experiencing frequent extreme hail and wind events during harvest time.

They also face changing seasonal patterns of rainfall and the risk of not having enough good quality water.

Water supply and quality is already a major issue in South Africa. We will be paying far more for water and there will be far stricter permitting.

So is there anything we can look forward to on the future weather score?

Yes, says Scholes: in South Africa we will have fewer cold nights throughout the year while the days will still be lovely and warm. We will also have less frost, so we will be able to grow certain foods more widely, such as our delicious subtropical fruits.