23 May 2022

A climate for change

by Natercia Dos Santos Niz, Associate, Durban,
Practice Area(s): Environmental |

Last month KwaZulu-Natal suffered the deadliest flooding in the history of the country and over this past weekend further flooding and damage has occured. To date, the floods have claimed the lives of at least 435 people, with many still missing. The floods have also caused massive infrastructural damage that has been estimated to cost 17 billion rand to repair. At present, 600 schools have been impacted by the floods as a result of the damage. In the current state of uncertainty, one thing remains, all steps must be taken to ensure that we are better prepared to manage and mitigate the impacts of climate change in the future.

South Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change due to its geographical location. The impacts of climate change will also be more heavily felt in South Africa due to its socioeconomic development state. Notwithstanding the positive steps taken by the state and the legislature to try and combat the impacts of climate change, the recent floods have demonstrated that the need for change is far more desperate and immediate than previously anticipated by the state.

On 25 June 2021, the Minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment opened consultation on her intention to publish ‘The national guideline for consideration of climate change implications in applications for environmental authorisations, atmospheric emission licenses and waste management licenses’. The guideline follows the National Climate Change Response White Paper as well as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the agreements made under the Framework Convention. This guideline is of great value because it recognises the importance of integrating climate change and the implications thereof into the earliest stages of development and planning.

The guideline makes use of the current environmental management framework found in the Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations and provides for climate change assessments to be undertaken as a part of the Environmental Impact Assessment process. Therefore, when applying for an Environmental Authorisation, Waste Management License and/or Atmospheric Emissions License, the applicant will need to include a climate change assessment as a part of the application. Where there is uncertainty about the potential climate change impacts, an Environmental Assessment Practitioner can appoint a climate change specialist to determine the climate change impact. An example of one of the necessary assessments to be made for a development is ‘the impact of a development on natural and built features that are crucial for climate change adaption and resilience’.

Another vitally important piece of legislation for South Africa is the Climate Change Bill. The Climate Change Bill has recently been published again for public comment. The Climate Change Bill in its current form will place further obligations on the state by enforcing the need for each sphere of government to implement climate change response strategies. The Climate Change Bill will ensure that South Africa’s climate change is effective and that a just transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy is reached in the long-term.

The guideline and the Climate Change Bill are two pieces of legislation that will greatly impact South Africa’s future. Unfortunately, neither of these pieces of legislation have been enacted yet.  

The environmental challenges South Africa is facing will impact all cross sections of society and strong governance is needed to ensure that these challenges are dealt with in a manner that promotes our constitutional environmental rights. There can be no space for error when considering issues such as these which are inextricably linked to the safety and quality of life for the current and future generations. We are deeply reliant on the environment for our social and economic welfare, and this must be front of mind when considering how we as a nation decide to move forward.

There will be more environmental disasters in the future, this is unavoidable. The public and private sector need to use the recent flooding as a forewarning of the massive damage that environmental disasters can cause to infrastructure, livelihoods, and above all, to people. An integrated approach between all spheres of government needs to be adopted, in conjunction with support from the private sector, to ensure that South Africa is in the best possible position to face and mitigate the impacts of climate change. Our challenge is not one that is insurmountable, but it is one that can become so if adequate measures are not put in place at this crucial point to protect our future as a nation.