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Issue 9, November 1999

Newsletter Index

Who is responsible for turning off the heat?

Since 1979, Small Island States as well as other nations in the developing world who are more vulnerable to climatic changes and their impacts, have been drawing the worlds attention to doomsday scenarios if the problem of climate change goes unchallenged by the global community. The people of the South are running out of time in environment and development terms. Climate change constitutes a major threat in terms of, amongst others: biodiversity loss; land degradation; drought; habitat change; loss of important natural resources such as water, wetlands and forests; natural disasters such as floods; and an enhanced greenhouse effect owing to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. Small changes in the climate of Southern Africa could seriously affect the balance between supply and demand of water resources, food production and energy resources.

The current negotiations in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol are characterised by an increasingly polarised North/South divide. Neither grouping can agree who is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and who must act first with regard to emission reductions. This situation can potentially stall any global action to combat climate change. Although, neither the North nor the South is a homogenous collection, both groups are sufficiently powerful to retard any significant action.

In July 1997, four months before the all important meeting to negotiate agreement on the text of the Kyoto Protocol, US Senators Byrd and Hagel tabled a Senate Resolution concerning the US endorsement of legally binding emissions reductions as set out in the draft Protocol. The Resolution, adopted with a vote of 95 in favour and 0 against, resolved that the United States should not sign any agreement for new binding restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions at the upcoming Third Conference of the Parties (COP-3) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto, unless it included "new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties".

Underlying this resolution were concerns that an agreement at Kyoto would cause a loss of American jobs to China, India and other developing countries. The US argued that because developing country emissions will eventually be equal to or greater than developed country emissions by the year 2030, they therefore need to be part of the global solution to address rising emissions. Africa's share of global greenhouse gas emissions is projected to be anything from 4% to 26% by the year 2100. The US has threatened not to ratify the Protocol, which has an implication on its entry into force, unless the developing countries budge.

In response, developing countries have pointed out that the 20% of global population living in the industrial countries is responsible for over 80% of the accumulated ghg output since the beginning of industrialisation and had grown rich and powerful whilst remaining unaccountable for that impact. According to Karamanzira (1998), developing countries generally view greenhouse gas emissions from the developed countries as a result of luxury emissions while their contributions are survival emissions. The former generally originate from industrial activities driven by unsustainable consumption patterns in the developed world and a standard of living that is already far above that of the average person, while the latter are from agricultural practices which are inefficient and energy intensive. Comparing current emissions per person around the world clearly highlights the inequity of consumption patterns, which are causing the global climate to change. For example, India's population of nearly 1 billion (15% of global population) emits an insignificant 0.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year (pppy), against South Africa's population of 43 million (0.7% of global population) with an average of 7 tonnes pppy. Next to this, the US population of 259 million (5% of global population) averages a staggering 19 tonnes pppy. When the accumulated gross emissions of these countries are compared as percentages of total global output, India is responsible for 2%, South Africa for 1%, while the US is responsible for 30%. Since there is a very close correlation between income levels and GHG emissions levels, it is not surprising that those who have been making the money have been making the mess. As inequities currently stand, the average greenhouse gas emissions of one US citizen are equal to 25 Indians, 33 Pakistanis, 42 Maldivians, 85 Sri Lankans, those of 125 Bangladeshis, 250 Bhutanese or 500 Nepalese. It is for these reasons that the Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol are viewed, by some, as responses to impacts of choice rather than necessity or survival.

To add to these growing divisions, there have also been contested debates concerning the recognition of the contribution that developing countries are currently achieving with regards to the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC. In fact, the South may actually be at the forefront of domestic emission reductions. According to Reid and Goldemberg (1997), developing countries are already effective participants in the global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and point out that since the signing of the UNFCCC in 1992, developing countries may have achieved greater CO2 emission savings than the developed world. Part of this reduction results from the cutting of fossil fuel subsidies in China, India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Brazil. This fact is often obscured or absent from the northern driven process concerning the role of developing countries in accepting legally binding emissions reductions. The South has effectively argued that it is futile to take the planet hostage and not act in the best interest of all present and future generations, in the false assertion that developing countries are not acting responsibly.

It is no surprise that at every stage of the negotiations since Kyoto, developing countries have rightly rejected the proposals put forward by the United States in 1997. South Africa and others in the G77 & China group have argued that industrialised countries must take the lead in significantly decreasing their emissions, because the present concentrations of GHG are mostly due to their actions. Developed countries should first and foremost embark on a serious alteration of their consumption and production patterns, particularly in their energy and transport sectors, thus leading to a drastic reduction of their CO2 emissions. At the 12th Summit held in South Africa in 1998, the Non-Aligned Movement statement "categorically rejected all attempts by some developed countries to link their ratification of the Kyoto Protocol with the question of participation by developing countries in the reduction of GHG emissions" (NAM, Paragraph 342). However, in November 1999, under considerable pressure, Argentina became the first developing country to accept a voluntary emissions reduction target. The South African energy sector may be the next on the list.

South Africa's economy is energy intensive, highly reliant on fossil fuels and sees economic growth based on energy intensive industries as the means to development. The combination of these factors has led to a high growth rate of CO2 emissions, making South Africans some of the largest contributors to climate change in the world. This is mainly the result of high-level emissions levels related to coal reliance for the generation of electricity and the burning of synthetic fuels. Research from 1994 shows that South Africa was between the fifteenth and twentieth largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, responsible for 2% of global emissions and 80% of Africa's GHG's emissions. The country maintains one of the top 10 most energy intensive economies in the world, meaning that its emits far more heat trapping gas for a given amount of economic output than all but a handful of other countries. The South African energy sector is particularly susceptible and vulnerable when it comes to the international negotiations concerning "voluntary emissions reduction commitments" and "the meaningful participation of developing countries".

Given these domestic circumstances and growing consumer awareness and stricter environmental legislation in Northern countries, key exports, in a number of sectors would be substantially affected if actions were to be taken against energy intensive exports. Similarly if energy prices were to rise considerably as a result of investments in greenhouse gas abatement technologies, the comparative advantage of a number of exports would similarly be affected. Despite these factors, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) views our comparative advantage of cheap electricity as an opportunity to be exploited for economic development and therefore actively encourages the establishment of, and investment in, energy-intensive industries. This approach will only serve to make South Africa's energy intensive sectors potentially more vulnerable to international pressures.

Similarly, voluntary commitments cannot be seen outside their political context. Although they might bring the advancement of cleaner technology and renewable energy development, they undermine the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility" between developed and developing countries. In many senses South Africa’s national context mirrors global inequalities and the international divide between the peoples (and their consumption habits) in developed and developing countries. The majority of South Africa's luxury emissions come from the country’s energy intensive industries, and their high-energy content products. Despite an over abundance of " cheap" energy, 40% of South Africa’s population are still in a state of energy poverty without access to electricity. Therefore just as the citizens and governments in the North bear the primary responsibility for addressing energy consumption and GHG levels, so to do South Africa’s predominately white middle classes bear a local responsibility to alter their energy consumption patterns.

It is for the above reasons that, the exercise of negotiating voluntary commitments needs to be carefully evaluated as an error in assessment could have hugely negative impacts on South Africa’s development. South Africa strongly supports the central concept of common but differentiated responsibilities for developed and developing countries. The government believes that developing countries already carry a significant responsibility and the proposal of any new commitments for these nations, be they voluntary or not, at this juncture would be premature. Addressing emissions reductions while simultaneously addressing poverty, redressing historical injustices with regard to energy access and averting associated job losses in the coal and industrial sectors, will require both knowledge and political efforts. It demands an informed public and the involvement of all spheres of civil society in working with and putting pressure on the institutions of government and the private sector. However without a regulatory authority or enforceable law, ensuring compliance and monitoring emission to reductions will be almost impossible and mostly ineffective. South Africa needs to work towards establishing a workable legal order to ensure and monitor compliance with emissions reductions, while simultaneously achieving a balance between national development priorities and our international obligations with respect to the rights of other people within the framework of the UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol and other related international environmental conventions.

Mr Richard Sherman
Project Officer
Group for Environmental Monitoring
South Africa
world-drop.gif (2751 bytes)  Climate Change and Freshwater Resources

Although climate change will impact on our planet in many ways, one of its most important consequences will be on water resources. These consequences will be felt both on the Earth’s natural hydrological system and on the complex man-made water management schemes. At present, the implications of global climate change are only just beginning to be integrated in water planning and management policies. The public in general, and policymakers and water authorities in particular, will have to take into account the various impacts of climate change in order to come up with a comprehensive and viable long-term water management strategy.

Although there is little doubt that climatic changes will alter the hydrological cycle in a variety of ways, there is still little certainty about the exact form these changes will take and where and when they will occur. Thus it is very difficult to determine how such changes will affect water supply and demand.

A Wetter Planet

The hydrological system both affects and is affected by climatic conditions. Changes in temperature impact on evapo-transpiration rates, cloud characteristics, soil moisture, storm intensity, as well as snowfall and snowmelt regimes. Changes in precipitation levels affect the timing and magnitude of floods and droughts, shift runoff regimes and alter groundwater recharge conditions. The combined effects will modify cloud formation and extent, vegetation patterns and growth rates, as well as the behaviour of soil moisture.

There is a strong consensus among the scientific community that climate change and altered precipitation patterns will result in a wetter world globally. However, some regions will experience increases in rainfalls while others will face decreasing precipitation. There will also be considerable inter-annual variability. So far, climatic models have consistently projected a rise in global mean precipitation of between 3 and 15 percent for a temperature increase of 1.5 to 3.5C. In the arid and semi-arid zones of Southern Africa even small precipitation changes will have significant ecological and societal implications.

Regarding evaporation and transpiration (the loss of water into the atmosphere from plants) climate models suggest that global average evaporation may increase by 3 to 15 percent for an equivalent doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide (one of the gases responsible for global warming) concentration.

Changes in precipitation patterns and in the level of evapo-transpiration will directly affect soil moisture storage, runoff processes and groundwater dynamics. Soil moisture is a critical variable in determining agricultural production and defining the type and extent of vegetation. Consequently, one of the effects of changing soil moisture levels will be an increased incidence of droughts.

Climate change will also impact on river flows and runoff. It is predicted that a 10 to 20 percent increase or decrease of precipitation will most probably change runoff by about the same amount thus affecting water supply. The consequences will either be increased flooding or recurring droughts. Some regions will experience both as the climate becomes more variable.

The Impacts of Climate Change

The impacts of climate change on water supply and availability will in turn lead to direct and indirect effects on a wide range of institutional, economic and social factors. Adaptation and innovative management will certainly be useful and necessary responses to climatic changes. Several factors, however, suggest that relying solely, or even principally, on adaptation may prove a dangerous policy. First the impacts of climate change on the water sector will be very complicated and at least partly unpredictable. Second, many impacts may be nonlinear and chaotic, characterised by surprises and unusual events. Third climatic changes will be imposed on water systems that will be increasingly under pressure from other factors, including population growth, competition for financial resources from other sectors, and disputes over water allocations and priorities. Finally, some adaptive strategies may help mitigate certain adverse consequences of climate change while simultaneously worsening others.

At present, research and analysis has barely scratched the surface of the potential impact that climate change could have on water systems such as reservoirs, hydroelectric generation, water quality or navigation. A study conducted on the Colorado River Basin shows that a 10 percent decrease in average natural flow would result in a 30 percent decrease in reservoir storage, a 30 percent reduction in hydroelectricity production, and a violation of salinity standards in the lower river.

Changes in the Hydrological Cycle

Recent studies and research show that changes and variations in the hydrological cycle of the Earth are already occurring. There is also strong evidence that the changes affecting the water system are not just the result of natural variability. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1900 to 1988, precipitation over land has globally increased by 2.4 millimeters per decade and global mean rainfall has risen by more than 2 percent. There has also been an increase in heavy and extreme daily precipitation events.

Although precipitation has increased globally, certain regions have experienced a decrease. Rainfall in the Sahelian West Africa in the last 35 years has been well below the amount received earlier in this century. While similar dry periods have been observed in the past, the recent period exhibits a tendency toward continental-scale dryness not seen in the past record. For example, Lake Chad in northern Africa has shrunk from its greatest extent in the 1960s to about one-tenth that area in the 1980s because of declining rainfall.

Although only time will tell if the changes in the precipitation patterns are linked to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the evidence that climate change is responsible is accumulating. The average surface temperature of the Earth has increased by nearly 1C over the past century and the 12 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1980 with 1995 and 1997 being the warmest years ever recorded.

The impact of climate change on freshwater resources will be felt in every aspect of natural resources management and thus have important consequences on society, particularly on poor and rural communities and on developing countries in general. The southern African region which already suffers from recurring droughts is particularly vulnerable to any changes in precipitation patterns. Many current freshwater problems will be made worse by the greenhouse effect.

In the past, water planning and management relied on the assumption that future climatic conditions would be the same as past conditions, and most water-supply systems were designed with this assumption in mind. Traditional water management approaches will need to be adapted. The emphasis must now be put on increased flexibility in order to meet the uncertainties of climate change.


While water management systems are often flexible, adaptation to new hydrological conditions may come at substantial economic cost. Water agencies should begin to reexamine engineering design assumptions, operating rules, system optimisation, and contingency planning for existing and projected water management systems.

Water agencies and providers should explore the vulnerability of both structural and non-structural water systems to future climate changes, not just past climatic variability.

Governments at all levels should reevaluate legal, technical and economic approaches for managing water resources in the light of future climatic changes.

Cooperation between water agencies and the scientific community needs to be enhanced and improved.

Cooperation between the climate change community, the public and the water management sector needs to be developed and expanded.

Information taken from the World’s Water, The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources 1998 – 1999, Peter H. Gleick