An Assessment Of Climate Change In South Africa


Climate is one of the most pertinent environmental topics of the 21st century. It is also a contentious and controversial political and economic topic among world governments. Climate change in its simplest and broadest definition refers to changes in the atmospheric conditions of a place such as rainfall and temperature. One of the most pronounced effects of climate change is global warming and therefore, in modern usage, the two terms are often utilized interchangeably. However, global warming is merely one of the aspects of climate change. A key driver of climate change is the greenhouse effect, which is brought about by greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun within the earth’s atmosphere, leading to an increase in the overall temperatures on the earth’s surface. This in turn affects wind pattern and precipitation patterns, leading to climate change as we know it. In the following sections, climate change in South Africa is explored and discussed, with a key emphasis on the impacts and actions pursued by its government to mitigate and the effects of, and reduce vulnerability to climate change.

Definition and Background of Climate change

Climate change refers to long-term changes in the climatic patterns and characteristics of an area region or the globe. It essentially refers to shifts that occur in the weather condition of a place with time (, n.d). In its more contemporary use, climate change is closely associated with global warming and in fact the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. However, global warming is a phenomenon whereby the overall temperature on the earth’s surface rises and is brought about by the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect refers to the trapping of heat energy from the sun by the Earth’s atmosphere (Downie, Brash, & Vaughan, 2009). The greenhouse effect is induced by certain atmospheric gases, which appear in trace concentrations. They include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides, chlorofluorocarbons and water vapor (Hardy, 2003). These gases are referred to as greenhouse gases. The most abundant are water vapor and carbon dioxide.

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Climate change, through the greenhouse effect, is induced by various factors. The carbon cycle, energy balance and the greenhouse effect are essential processes that help to maintain the climate as it is. However, certain human activities have affected these processes, thereby contributing to ramifications in the climate. Such human activities include the use of fossil fuels, the industrial revolution and population growth (Downie, Brash, & Vaughan, 2009).

Climate change results in varying impacts on the environment such as elevated temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns. Changes in climatic conditions in turn affect human and other life. Climate change has both global and localized impacts for members of certain regions. In order to better understand how climate change affects individuals, a case study is best. Climate change in South Africa is therefore discussed.

Climate change in South Africa

South Africa is one of Africa’s most prosperous country and economies. It covers an area of 1.22 km2 which is approximately 2% of the world’s surface area (Irlich et al., 2014). Moreover, it has a coastline stretching for about 2800km. It is characterized by a warm temperate climate and is mostly arid. It receives an annual rainfall of 500mm. According to Griffin, South Africa is known for an immense beauty arising coupled with a rich biodiversity and abundant wildlife (2012). This biodiversity is aptly indicated by its 9 distinct biomes. These are Fynbos, Succulent Karoo, Desert, Forests, Nama-Karoo, Savanna, Grassland Biome, Albany Thicket and Indian Ocean Coastal Belt.

Like any other country in the world, South Africa is not immune to climate change. South Africa has been and continues to be affected by climate change. Various studies have been conducted with an attempt to understand the impacts of climate change on South Africa. Such studies have uncovered current and potential implications of climate change such as terrestrial and marine ecosystem changes which in turn affect agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Assessment of climate change can be explicated through a vulnerability analysis.

South Africa is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change for a number of reasons. The primary reason for South Africa’s vulnerability is the low resilience of a large part of its population to the effects of climate change (COP17, n.d). This is because of aspects such as poverty ad high disease burden. A large proportion of the South African population is poverty-stricken, residing in informal settlements. A number of these settlements are set up in risk-vulnerable areas, placing the inhabitants at a heightened propensity for catastrophic effects of extreme weather events (Griffin, 2012). These informal settlements are part of the larger problem of inadequate housing structures. This inadequacy means that such a sizeable proportion of the South African population lacks protection from weather events such as rainfall, wind and cold. Another reason for South Africa’s heightened vulnerability is the high incidence of diseases. As will be seen, climate change exacerbates the risk of certain tropical ailments such as malaria and cholera.

South Africa is also vulnerable to climate change impacts since it already experiences low and variable rainfall. For some communities, this results in problematic access to safe and healthy drinking water (Griffin, 2012). The problem is complicated by the fact that most of South Africa’s surface water resources are already fully utilized (COP17, n.d). Finally, South Africa’s vulnerability is accentuated by the importance of agriculture and fisheries for food security as well as livelihood sustenance.

One of the important trends to monitor when it comes to climate change is greenhouse gas (GHG) emission. For South Africa, GHG emission monitoring is particularly important considering that it was ranked 13th highest CO2 equivalent emitter in 2008 (Seymore, Inglesi – Lotz, & Blignaut, 2014). The GHG emissions for South Africa indicate a trend of increased emissions. A summary of research findings on total GHG emissions for South Africa is represented in the figure below:

Impacts of Climate Change

Climate change has had multiple impacts on South Africa. These impacts have been both direct and indirect. The direct impacts are those that relate to its environment while the indirect ones are those that are consequences of the environmental impacts.

Projections on climate change indicate a significant change in parameters such as rainfall and temperature within a period of as soon as 2050. When it comes to rainfall, it is predicted that the winter and summer rainfall will decrease all over South Africa. In particular, a decrease of between 5 and 15% is predicted for the summer period (Turpie et al., 2002). For the winter period, rainfall is expected to decrease by 25% in both Northern and southwestern regions of the country. When it comes to temperature, it is predicted that South Africa’s coastal regions will experience a temperature rise of 1-2° C by 2050 and a further 3-4° C by 2100  (COP17, n.d). For the interior regions, the anticipated temperature rise is much higher. It is projected that the temperature rise in the interior regions of South Africa will be by a margin of 3-4° C by 2050 and 6-7° C by 2100. The CO2 levels are expected to double from 275 ppmv to 550 ppmv (Turpie et al., 2002). This figure is in line with what is commonly used in climate change literature to estimate the complex effects.

Changes in weather conditions of rainfall and temperature will have environmental ramifications such as changes in mean annual runoff and groundwater recharge. As a result of changes in precipitation, the mean annual runoff is expected to reduce by 10-30%.  Consequently, GR – groundwater recharge – is expected to experience an overall decline, with absolute values predicting large decreases for the Western Cape Mountain folds (Turpie et al., 2002). Sediment yields are projected to increase particularly for the eastern seaboard and extreme north regions. The implication of these results is a decline in the overall runoff into the main rivers.

Social and economic impacts

The social and economic consequences that South Africa would experience as a consequence of climate change are multiple and complex. Economic impacts are frequently classified into two categories: market and non-market (Turpie et al., 2002). The effect of market impacts would reflect in national accounts as they would affect the overall GDP of a country. They include impacts on the primary sector (agriculture, fisheries), damages from catastrophes (droughts and floods) and property loss. Non-market impacts are those that relate to intangible affects and they relate to loss of ecosystems, human impacts (migration and political stability) and damage from catastrophes.

Due to alterations in temperature and rainfall, changes are expected in the ecosystem with an associated biodiversity loss. Generally speaking, the western half of South Africa is projected to experience aridification. Such aridification would effectively reduce the available amenable land to biomes, hence the biodiversity loss (Turpie et al., 2002). Due to increases in CO2, a CO2 fertilization effect is expected to increase productivity in rangelands. Range shifts are expected to amount to losses of species. The economic effect of such changes would arise either from the use value of natural resources, or their non-use value. Use value is usually addressed as either consumptive or non-consumptive. Loss of consumptive use value would arise as a consequence of the entire loss of forests, which avail commercially viable timber and non-timber products. The Savannah biome is another which is expected to significantly reduce. This would lead to consumptive value loss due to the curtailing of activities such as grazing and the subsistence harvest of resources.

Reduced river capacity due to reduced annual runoff and groundwater recharge is expected to reduce estuarine water flows. Consequently, estuarine fish catches may reduce by as much as 35% nationally (Turpie et al., 2002). Moreover, the national fishery value would experience a loss of on average 18%. Another sector that will significantly be affected by climate change is tourism. Wildlife attracts about 36% of international tourists to South Africa. Habitat and biodiversity loss that is anticipated as a consequence of climate change would significantly reduce the contribution of tourism to the country’s GDP. Non-use value arises from existence value as well as option value. The estimated loss of existence value stands at R2.63 billion annually.

The impacts of climate change are not all negative. As noted, productivity within the rangelands is expected to increase as a consequence of increased CO2 levels. This would lead to an increase in cattle productivity of R191-1344 million annually (Turpie et al., 2002). However, there would also be a loss in cattle worth of about R100-200 million annually. The increased productivity of rangelands is not all positive news however. Increased productivity makes rangeland susceptible to bush encroachment which would reduce grazing land (COP17, n.d). Moreover, bush encroachment imposes a risk of invasive species, which are better suited to adapt. The invasive species therefore threaten the indigenous plant species, and by extension, the indigenous faunal life which relies on the indigenous flora (Griffin, 2012).  The result would be an extinction of some of these species and wildlife, particularly those that are endemic to the area.

The economic losses associated with climate change are also related to agricultural activities, and not just natural resources. Reduced availability of water and increased droughts are likely to affect small-scale farmers more than large-scale farmers, who may have infrastructural resources at their disposal (Griffin, 2012). Maize is the largest field crop for South Africa and it is estimated that climate change will lead to a R681 million loss in maize production. However, adjusting for CO2 fertilization, the figure shrinks to about R46 million (Turpie et al., 2002). The CO2 fertilization effect is the reason why climate change has a reduced productivity effect on crop production.

Climate change also risks inducing infrastructural damage. Such damage is associated to the rise in sea level, and also increased damage capacity of storms (Turpie et al., 2002). Marine life is expected to undergo severe ramifications as a consequence of climate change. The warming up of sea currents, particularly the Agulhas and Benguela currents is expected to reduce ocean productivity. Associated consequences include the extinction of species such as the African penguin, a species endemic to South Africa and Namibia. The climate related paradigms that would induce this extinction include rising temperatures, reduced ocean productivity and overfishing, which would result from reduced productivity, further exacerbating the problem (Griffin, 2012). Reduced ocean productivity means a reduction in the ocean population.

The socio-economic impacts of climate change relate to lost economic opportunities. For instance, agriculture and fisheries have important implications for employment. With the climate change impact on fisheries, tourism and agricultural, the consequence would be reduce employment opportunities and an increase in unemployment (Griffin, 2012). Moreover, reduced capacity in agriculture and fisheries would also affect food security. The changes in weather conditions will also have significant ramifications for health. Increased precipitation and temperature will increase the incidences of tropical diseases such as malaria. This effect is already being felt since according to Turpie et al., a four-fold increse in the population at risk of malaria was expected as of 2010 (2002). The increase in malaria has associated costs such as the related deaths and an increase in healthcare costs. Moreover, the sick or their carers also experience a loss of income, with the total related costs amounting to R1billion annually. Griffin, posits that extreme events associated to climate change would further exacerbate the risk of other ailments such as ccolera (2012). The risk is particularly more emphasized in informal settlements,where access to sanitation and sfae drinking water is limited.

Clearly, the impacts of climate change are mutiple, complex and multi-faceted. Climate change induces alterations on weather conditions such as temperature and rainfall. Such alterations then affect aspects in the natural environment or in the man-made environment. Since such aspects have significant value, such value is reduced or eliminated leading to economic losses. Economic losses such as unemployment will further lead to social losses. In order to address these impacts, South Africa has come up with various actions and strategies that are targeted at mitigating the effects of climate change.

Action by the South African Government to Combat Climate Change

One of the reasons why South Africa stands out from other countries is that it has prioritized Climate change action at the national level. In line with its efforts towards mitigating climate change, the South African government in 2011 outlined a National Climate Change Response White Paper (Ziervogel, et al., 2014). The White Paper addresses the government’s response strategy to climate change. In this paper, the government outlines various strategies such as a transitional map that would allow the government to move towards a low-carbon climate-resilient economy and society (COP17, n.d). In line with this transition, mitigation and adaptation efforts are outlined. Moreover, the White paper also addresses a structural reform of the South African economy, through a shift towards a climate-friendly path. The white paper is guided by scientific research into what action will facilitate the limitation of temperature rise to levels of less than 2° C. a more ambitious target outlined in the white paper aims at ensuring a peak, plateau and consequent decline in the greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020-2025 (COP17, n.d). The strategies identified in this paper are strongly sectoral, albeit appropriate indications are outlined for coordinated action. Consequently, various responses have been implemented. Some of these responses are now discussed.

One of the areas that have been addressed through the strategy is biodiversity. Climate change impacts scenarios have been incorporated into national plans for the expansion of protected areas. Some of the considerations taken into account included climate scenarios incorporating expected climate change scenarios. Interventions in ecosystem restoration have benefits such as increasing resiliency to climate change and wetland restoration (Kotze & Ellery, 2009). Moreover, initiatives such as ecosystem based adaptations have been developed and are been explored. An example, Conservation South Africa has implemented pilot programs of the EBA concept. This is in the Namakwa district municipality.

Another sector where climate change is being addressed is the agricultural sector. The solutions developed are ones that are locally relevant, and aimed at agriculture and water management. Some of the adaptation responses that have been implemented within the agricultural sector include a shift from apple orchards to vineyards and an increase in the water storage capacities (Ziervogel, et al., 2014). Moreover, research is being carried out with an aim of understanding climate variability and the associated changes. According to Ziervogel, et al., the methods used in search research are participatory methods and community based adaptation planning (2014). The advantage of such methodologies is that they derive from the experience of farmers about what actually works. Another governmental action is the development of local adaptation strategies for cities and municipalities. These strategies aim to link current priorities and future considerations. Implementation of local strategies is however hindered by significant challenges. For instance, in cities, such implementation is hampered by the large size and organization complexities (Ziervogel, et al., 2014). However, within smaller municipalities, such implementation is impeded by a lack of resources.


Climate change is one of the most significant environmental challenges of the 21st century. While climate change is an on-going and rather docile process, certain activities have accelerated the process to dangerous levels. Such activities include the use of fossil fuels and increased human population. In South Africa, industrialization and other human activities have contributed significantly t0o climate change. The result has been ramifications such as increased temperature, reduced rainfall and reduced surface runoff. The development of adverse and unpredictable weather patterns in turn poses problems for the agricultural, forestry, fishery and tourism sectors. These problems have important economic and social implications as well as significant health outcomes. To combat climate change, the South African government came up with a White Paper on a National Climate Change Response. The White Paper outlines mitigation and adaptation strategies to address climate change.

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