Thursday, May 13, 2010

Five systemic challenges

In a recent panel discussion at the South African chapter of the World Future Society we discussed the top five systemic challenges facing South Africa. From the perspective of environmental sustainability here is my five:

First, the uneasy relationship between coal and carbon. Much of the electricity in major developing countries such as China and also South Africa is expected to come from coal. The energy returned on energy invested ratios for coal are still higher than other energy feedstocks. The IEA expects that coal will continue to play a major role in world energy supply for many decades to come. South Africa’s own energy plans include coal as the primary source for electricity generation in the forseeable future. Around a third of total carbon emissions in the world is from coal. This number is higher in South Africa. Coal provides three-quarters of energy supplied in SA. How and when the costs of carbon constraints will seep through into South Africa’s energy system, and what the technological and behavioural responses will be is a key trend to watch and a key challenge to manage.

Second is the nexus between changing climates, the availability of water and the need for more productive food systems. South Africa, apart from some Middle Eastern countries, have one of the lowest amounts of renewable freshwater available to its people. This amount has also been drastically reduced in the last few decades. Food security in Southern Africa is a major problem, with well over 100 million people malnourished in the region. The pressure for an African revolution in food production is large, but this have to be managed within the context of high vulnerability to climatic change and increased competition for water resources. Desalination is fastly becoming an option for coastal towns and cities.

Third is the impact of Sino-African relationships on Africa’s, as well as South Africa’s, development paths. Africa is seen as a preferred supplier of commodities, most notably oil, but also cotton, diamonds, logs and other base metals. The ecological costs of China’s growth have been well documented as well as China’s drive towards investment in cleaner technology in recent years. Africa’s long history of natural resource exploitation and the mixed signals from China on environmental management needs to be further unpacked as it may have important consequences for the sustainability of South Africa’s development path.

Fourth, South Africa’s water system needs urgent attention. Water services in only 11% of municipalities in the country are fully functional. Almost half are either at high risk or critical. A report on the state of about half of our sewage treatment works further revealed that only around 7% qualified for so-called Green Drop Status, which is a close measure of international accepted norms. The problem of decanting acid mine drainage looms, where the high amounts of salts and heavy metals associated with it will threaten downstream irrigation and other water users.

Fifth, one of the downside’s of South Africa’s recent economic boom was a massive pile of waste. Landfills are under pressure, and alternative waste management options are actively seeked. The costs of waste management are likely to rise while the country is managing the transition to waste avoidance, reduction and recycling.