The Need for Radical Transformation: Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation in Cape Town, South Africa

It can no longer be denied that climate change has severe effects on our daily lives. As a response, the City of Cape Town has developed a policy that acknowledges climate change impacts as a pressing social and economic issue.

This Is Not the Time for Small Steps

“The time for transformative action has come”. This is the message that resonated through the CitiesIPCC Cities and Climate Change Conference in March 2018. This stands in contrast to the past decades, when governments and industry at all scales have focused on making incremental progress and gradual changes to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

However, the evidence is now clear that this is no longer sufficient, and that the time for radical and transformative action is here. As the IPCC’s special report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C notes, “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities”. Similarly, adapting to climate change requires bold and innovative action.

Cape Town knows first-hand that the consequences of climate change are real, serious, and pose an existential threat to cities and the way of life to which we have become accustomed. We know that climate change is not a distant or potential threat lurking in the future, but a slow-moving crisis that has already started to cause major impacts on the ground.

Between 2015 and 2017, Cape Town was affected by a severe drought caused by significantly below normal rainfall. A recent study by several leading climate scientists showed that climatic changes caused by anthropogenic global warming made this drought three times more likely to occur.

It is clear that climate change impacts have the potential to massively disrupt the functioning of cities and create knock-on and cascading effects that will impact at local, regional, national and even international scales.

The Need for Proactive Climate Action

As such, the City of Cape Town is convinced that as local government, we must take action to protect the future of the city and those who live in it. In 2017, the City of Cape Town adopted its first Climate Change Policy, focussing on both mitigation and adaptation measures. This policy recognises that climate change can no longer be seen as a “green” or environmental issue, but must be treated as the pressing social and economic issue that it is. The City of Cape Town also recognises that proactive climate action by local government forms a vital part of development and service delivery decisions aimed at creating a better future city for all.

Cape Town has adopted a two-pronged approach in responding to climate change. Cape Town, along with other cities and towns in South Africa, finds itself facing two challenging tasks: to fulfil our commitment to drastically reduce carbon emissions in terms of the Paris Agreement, and to implement large scale adaptation measures to ensure the future resilience of our city.

Climate Change Impacts in Cape Town

The City of Cape Town’s 2015 State of Energy Report calculated Cape Town’s carbon footprint to be approximately 5.5 tCO2e per capita, which is comparable to other major metropolitan areas in South Africa. This relatively high carbon footprint is due to the high carbon intensity of South Africa’s national electricity grid, which remains largely coal-based, as well as high transport energy usage that is compounded by an inefficient urban form and significant traffic congestion.

A 2016 study by the University of Cape Town’s Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG) showed the climatic changes that Cape Town are likely to face include decreased rainfall and a change in seasonality of rainfall; increased temperatures and more frequent and intense heat waves; increased wind speeds; an increase in the intensity and frequency of storms; and sea level rise over the long term. All of these climatic changes will have significant impacts on the functioning of the city and its infrastructure. Many of these are already being felt, such as increased intensity of storm events and associated flooding and damage.

Responding to Climate Change

Responding to this, Cape Town has committed to city-wide carbon neutrality by 2050 under the C40 Deadline 2020 programme, and is in the process of transitioning its current Energy2040 Goal and associated carbon targets into a Carbon Neutral by 2050 vision and action plan for the city. This will ramp up action in reducing carbon emissions, improving energy efficiency, embracing renewable energy, and transforming the city’s transport system.

The City is also focussing strongly on climate change adaptation through the development of an integrated Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan, which is supported by a comprehensive Climate Change Hazard, Vulnerability, and Risk Assessment Study. At the same time the City is in the process of developing a broader Resilience Strategy that will include a focus on climate change. The City is also taking bold steps in developing a new Water Strategy that will focus on building resilience to future drought and water shortages through a range of interventions.

Pursuing Mitigation and Adaptation isn’t Optional, it is Essential

Cape Town, as many cities in developing regions, faces numerous challenges in mitigating and adapting to climate change. We are facing these challenges head-on, as we know that pursuing mitigation and adaptation isn’t optional, it is essential.

Uncertainty regarding the timing and magnitude of climatic changes presents a key challenge, especially in terms of infrastructure development. Although the best available science is being applied to the problem, we know that an uncertainty “gap” will always remain. An environment of constrained resources combined with the need to focus on delivering services to all citizens may mean that when investing in large scale adaptation, difficult trade-offs need to be made.

Within the field of mitigation, an additional challenge for carbon footprint reduction is present, as the national energy department does not currently allow local governments to directly procure independently produced renewable energy.

It is clear that there is no “one size fits all” approach to responding to climate change – each context is different and will require different solutions. What is clear is that bold, innovative, novel, and transformative thinking and action is required.

Calling Cities to Action

As cities, hosting more than half the world’s population and the centres of economic and intellectual strength, we have the potential to lead the way in responding effectively to climate change. The IPCC special report on Global Warming of 1.5 °C makes it clear that the benefits of taking action now, instead of later, will be multiple with “clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems” and will lead us towards “ensuring a more sustainable and equitable society”.

Amy Davison

Amy Davison

Amy Davison is "Head: Climate Change" in the City of Cape Town’s Environmental Management Department. She is responsible for coordinating the implementation of the City of Cape Town Climate Change Policy, as well as leading the development and implementation of a city-wide climate change adaptation action plan.
Amy Davison