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Cape Town’s climate strategy isn’t perfect

But every African city should have one.
Fynbos, the biodiverse shrubland in Cape Town, is thought to have the third highest carbon stored per square metre for any biome in South Africa. It must be protected. Image: Shutterstock

It may take an extreme heatwave, a mega wildfire or a severe coastal storm to begin to appreciate the dangers of climate change.

Africa is likely to be the continent hit hardest by climate change. The region is vulnerable to droughts, heat and floods and many countries have a low capacity for adaptation because of poor governance and poverty, limiting individual choices.

Despite this threat, only 13 cities in Africa are C40 cities – cities committed to taking measurable climate action. Only five in South Africa have climate change strategies. The aim of a climate change strategy is to outline actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Mitigation includes reducing emissions and enhancing the sinks of greenhouse gases. Some examples include shifts to renewable energy and ecosystem restoration. Adaptation is the adjustment of natural or human systems to moderate harm from the impacts of climate change. This could be in the form of storing rainwater, diversifying crops to improve drought resilience, and retreating from coastal risk areas or river flood zones.

Cape Town

Cape Town is the latest African city to redraft its climate change strategy. According to a risk and vulnerability assessment, Cape Town faces many challenges. These include a significant increase in temperatures, long-term decrease in rainfall, changes in rainfall seasonality, more extreme heat days and heat waves, and coastal erosion. Global warming has already raised the risk of more severe droughts in Cape Town threefold.

This new draft strategy contains 35 goals. For adaptation, the goals focus on rising temperatures, water scarcity, water excess, sea level rise and fire risk. For mitigation they focus on clean energy, zero emissions, sustainable transport, inclusivity and the circular waste economy. The strategy also looks at cross-cutting issues, like funding mechanisms and communication strategies.

The city does well to acknowledge that bold action needs to be taken now to prevent the worst climate change impacts. It is appropriate that the strategy aims for carbon neutrality by 2050 and addresses sustainability issues, such as spatial transformation through dense and transit-oriented growth and development to support an efficient transport system.

But there are some gaps in the strategy. As researchers active in conservation and ecological restoration, we have studied the draft from an ecological perspective. Our main concerns are that the role of nature in the proposed climate action is missing, and the strategy as it stands is self-defeating. Natural processes are misunderstood and incorrectly represented, especially as relating to biodiversity conservation and wildfire risk management. We have some suggestions that other cities could consider when drawing up similar strategies.

A startling omission

The city of Cape Town encompasses nearly 2,500km² of land which includes natural ecosystems. Some of the most important biodiversity in South Africa and globally is located within its bounds. South Africa recognises the value of this biodiversity and is a signatory to several international agreements that commit to conservation, halting species extinctions and sustainable development.

The draft strategy fails to sufficiently highlight the role of biodiversity and natural ecosystems in climate action. The city acknowledges the importance of nature and that it needs to be retained, restored, expanded and optimised. But none of the 35 goals make the link between ecosystems and climate change. Another South African municipality, eThekwini, encompassing the city of Durban, achieves this in a climate change strategy that specifically includes biodiversity.

Natural ecosystems help to stabilise climate and restoring them mitigates climate change. They deliver services such as clean water and carbon sequestration. The United Nations recognises the role of biodiversity in stabilising climate and has declared that the next decade will be the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

Nature conservation and restoration are inexpensive tools for climate action according to both the European Commission and the UN. Many nations have pursued conservation and climate action policies separately. The result is a failure both to halt biodiversity loss and mitigate climate change. Research shows that climate change mitigation and nature conservation require much higher targets for environmental protection. One solution is to streamline these policies.

Cape Town is a case in point. In their proposed climate strategy, none of the goals explicitly deal with biodiversity, conservation or ecosystem restoration. Some of the proposed goals even undermine them.

Business unusual

Cape Town has the second highest number of plant extinctions worldwide. It is crucial that the city prevents further extinction by acquiring and restoring reserves for indigenous species.

To include nature in climate action, goals must make provision for ecosystem restoration, such as clearing invasive alien trees to improve water security. Fynbos, the biodiverse shrubland unique to the area, is thought to have the third highest carbon stored per square metre for any biome in South Africa. It must be protected and restored.

One issue of grave concern is the city’s approach to wildfire risk management in this strategy. There is a stated commitment to suppress fires in natural ecosystems, despite acknowledging that fires are a natural part of fynbos ecosystems. Instead of suppression, which increases risk of mega wildfires, the approach should be to perform ecological burns in natural areas and remove invasive alien trees. Fire suppression approaches have proven disastrous in Knysna, Australia and California.

A flawed strategy?

In the strategy, the City of Cape Town outlines a vision of becoming a climate resilient city that is resource efficient and carbon neutral. It also says that this vision is unrealistic, and that falling short of targets is likely.

Any strategy that has a self defeating vision is not one that should be supported. It would be more productive to adopt a clear vision that can be realised, taking advantage of affordable climate actions such as conservation and ecosystem restoration.

South Africa is known globally for its progressive legislation in acknowledging nature in water resource management. This is an impressive legacy, one that should be followed.

To protect the most vulnerable, African cities must work hard at reducing emissions and improving resilience. They must do this through conserving remaining natural ecosystems and restoring degraded ones, as well as exploring renewable energy and technological advancements. This will enable people in cities to enjoy dual benefits: improved resilience to climate change, as well as better air quality, recreational opportunities, health and well-being.The Conversation

Alanna Rebelo, postdoctoral researcher, Stellenbosch University; Karen Joan Esler, professor of Conservation Ecology and pead of the Department of Conservation Ecology & Entomology at Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch University; Michael Samways, Professor, Conservation Ecology & Entomology, Stellenbosch University; Patricia Holmes, plant ecologist, Stellenbosch University, and Tony Rebelo, Scientist, South African National Biodiversity Institute.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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And with the very first sentence, the whole house of cards collapses. There is no, repeat no, evidence that droughts or wildfires, which have always been around, are caused by so called man-made global warming, or that they can be mitigated by milking the taxpayer. None whatsoever.

The newspaper that I read normally have snippets of news that happened 50 years ago on that particular day. And the first thing I noticed that in the Cape there were droughts and fires long before anyone even thought of global warming.

@Incitatus: No evidence you say? Are you aware that UCT currently has a climate change unit that has shown that the risk of the recent south-western Cape drought was increased threefold by climate change? They do this through an analysis which is called climate attribution. You can read all about it here:

In terms of fire, you can read this popular article (it is a little easier to digest than some of the scientific papers -but you can find references there):

And in terms of the drought, these researchers found a threefold increase in drought risk with anthropogenic climate change. Please read here:

@dogwise: You are misunderstanding the issue. No-one is claiming that droughts and fires are new. They are saying that anthropogenic climate change increases the risk of these events. Please see all the evidence you need in the links above.

Do these people really know what they are talking about or are they just trying their best to scare the living daylight out of the general public in order to promote their “scary movie” concept. I see we are back to the “trees are drinking our water” scenario which resulted in Table Mountain ending up as a barren erosion prone rock deprived of its previous beauty.

The DA have openly encourage Eco-Nazis to chop down trees all over the city & surrounds. It has become quite a popular weekend pastime in some quarters.

There was a well-documented incident in Kenilworth last year of a serial tree-poisoner who poisoned gum trees over a period of months.

With over-densification and over-development, they have turned Cape Town into a Joey’s-by-the-Sea.

Their scaremongering has a very clear aim: to milk the largest amount of tax possible from the public.

I’m not really sure how I can be linked to tax, except that I would consider this current CC strategy a waste of my own tax money? I am one of the authors and am a researcher and I am criticizing the government…

I have a feeling that you only read the title and thought that this was promoting the CoCT’s climate change strategy -am I right?

Shall I translate this into numbers for you to understand?

That “barren rock” (actually it is one of the worlds richest biodiversity hotspots, and smallest floral kingdom: brings in around R77 million per year.

Invasive alien trees cause damages in the order of billions of Rands each year in South Africa, not least of all because of the amount of water they consume.

Your opinions and value judgements are just that: your own. (please note that I use references to back up all my statements. You can go read up on the work behind those numbers).

More Conversation spew from academics who no likely have never created any wealth whatsoever and are desperate to remain relevant in a post truth world. You have to love the couch speak : “It may take” , “Africa is likely” , “this could be” etc.

There is no evidence that global warming will raise the incidence of extreme weather or cause droughts over and above those which would have occurred anyway. It does not make sense: what is weather but a manifestation of the transfer of heat from the equator to the poles? If the poles warm more (as the models predict) then the extreme weather should be reduced.

The implication that Cape Town can change the weather in Cape Town and thus become “climate resilient” is hogwash of the highest order. Carbon sequestration is only useful until the next controlled burn or wildfire if massive fuel loads accumulate. Time to get real jobs where you create real wealth.

They say that knowledge is power. You seem dangerously uninformed.

For evidence, I would refer you to these articles, which include the scientific references:

Global warming has already raised the risk of more severe droughts in Cape Town

The science of change : helping Africa weather future risks

Incidentally, no-one is suggesting that “Cape Town change the weather”. I highly recommend you actually read the article, as well as the relevant scientific publications, before sharing your opinion.

In the end we all die. What is our legacy then? For you, it will be that you “created wealth” for yourself? Congrats. For many of us, we hope to leave behind a better place for future generations.

Global warming.


Bring on the next ice age.

I suppose that will be humanity’s fault as well.

Nothing like a good fairy tale to create a new market.

Remember the “Y2K bug” that wasn’t?

…with the Vaal Dam currently at 30% capacity, I’m certain the City of Jo’burg’s “climate strategy” isn’t working either.

Have we been washing our hands too many times lately?

Climate change is a hoax used as a mecanism to further tax citizens, companies and countries.
It was first referred to as the ozone layer that was purportedly causing all sots of mayhem on the people of the earth.
Once that hoax had worked itself out a new “threat” to mankind was called global warming.Once that didn’t resonate strongly enough they changed it to “climate change” as the unknown threat to humankind to steal your hard earned money ,make you feel guilty about, what I don’t know and to herd the western world into becomming scared to live so that you are easier to influence (relieve you of your money) and in order that you disregard God in everything that he created and influences,and in order that you stop thinking by giving up you your common sense.

Too many people – too few trees.

I’m not sure what this implies… Why the obsession with trees? Many South African ecosystems don’t have trees (e.g. grasslands, and most of fynbos).

I think you mean: “too many people, too few native and intact ecosystems”. This would be more sensible as it has been shown that carbon sequestration (i.e. trapping carbon) is much more effective in native, healthy ecosystems, than it is by indiscriminate tree planting.

I highly recommend watching this video to the end to see the author of the “trillion tree campaign” apologize for his irresponsible messaging around trees:, and acknowledges that it is all about ecological restoration.

In the mid nineties the state decided that invasive trees will use all our water and started removing pine and blue gum trees.
The school my sun attended played a lot of cricket against another school which had a lot of pine trees surrounding the cricket field. What a pleasure it was sitting in the shade watching my son play cricket.
The school master adhering to the call of the state removed all the trees. What a disgrace. Parents now have to sit the whole day in the sun watching cricket. That schoolmaster was surely shortsighted and downright stupid.

@dogwise I’m so sorry that you had to sit in the sun today to watch your sons cricket. I’m also sorry that I feel that this is hugely a #firstworldproblem. You couldn’t have worn a hat I suppose, or put up an umbrella?

No, the “shortsighted and downright stupid schoolmaster” should have kept invasive alien trees that cost the South African economy billions of Rands each year?

I refer you to these articles for evidence.

R6.5-billion lost to alien invaders

Invasive alien plants in South Africa pose huge risks, but they can be stopped

While I am a firm advocate of clearing invasive alien trees from natural ecosystems, I wouldn’t usually make a big fuss in the suburbs given that they are already so heavily transformed. But safety is another huge concern of these big trees, especially Gums which frequently shed their branches, and are fondly known of as ‘widowmakers’ in Australia. I also would strongly consider fire risk if these trees are on the suburban-natural veld edge.

As one of the authors of this article I thank this audience for their comments. If you really want to engage with the researchers (and not just form your own echo chamber) then I recommend that you direct your comments to the original article:

I have created an account to reply to these opinions and comments today, but I will not be responding here again. Therefore, any comments you make after today can be assumed to be because you like airing your opinion and do not really want to engage.

From some of the comments I judge that only the title was read. I highly recommend that you read the entire article before sharing your opinion.

End of comments.





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