Climate change continues to play second fiddle to economic and political issues

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With pressure building on politicians to make good on the largely unimplemented land reform process linked to the increasingly urgent need to address inequality and unemployment, the debate on expropriation without compensation has been foremost in the minds of many.

In contrast, climate change continues to play second fiddle to economic and political issues and, when mentioned in the news cycle, tends to centre on repeated droughts and water crises or talk about nebulous or looming future impacts that are hard to consider when dealing with the fraught present.

However, to make progress on the largely unimplemented land reform process, parliamentarians must take on board the Presidential Panel’s recommendation that “land reform must contribute towards the achievement of a ‘just transition’ to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, by promoting sustainable land-use practices in ways that create jobs and livelihoods as well as responding to climate variability”.

The issues of land use and climate change are intricately entwined, which is why the newly released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL) should be required reading for anyone concerned about the land debate.

South Africa’s focus on land ownership is understandable and justified, but the few voices to raise the deeper issues of appropriate land use tend to be drowned out by the political clamour. This is problematic, because how we use the land is critical, and the IPCC report highlights both how climate change will affect the functioning of land systems and how essential they are when it comes to dealing with the crisis. The evidence is clear: if we don’t factor land use considerations into near-term planning the land may well be of no use to anyone in the long term.

There is a fine balancing act that needs to be considered when talking about land use in a changing world. As the EFF constantly reminds us, this is linked to both economic prosperity and to cultural heritage, but more than that, it is the provisioning of the needs of our growing world that has driven the historical land contention.

Scientists have put considerable effort into measuring the world’s net primary productivity (NPP) – effectively the total amount of (mostly solar) energy that is retained in the environment through the growth of living organisms.

Over the last two centuries, humanity has claimed nearly three-quarters of the ice-free land, and has ramped up consumption of global NPP to the point that we now use more than a quarter of all the biomass that grows in any given year – making us the most voracious species in the history of the planet. Two-fifths of this is as a result of the conversion of natural systems, while the remainder reflects society’s consumption of agricultural crops and forestry. We are deeply dependent on the functioning of the natural ecosystems and agricultural landscapes we have created.

Climate change will upset these systems by shifting climate zones, reducing crop yields and changing whole ecosystems, even as growing populations and prosperity increases the demand for food. Our increasingly interlinked global food systems could suffer under such conditions, with multiple breadbasket failures becoming half again as likely if heating reaches 2°C. In other words, our most basic needs of food, feed and fibre are increasingly vulnerable in a chaotic future.

Natural ecosystems also provide a plethora of other services, driving rainfall, cleaning and regulating water, housing pollinators that are critical for food crops, and effectively providing the matrix on which civilisation has been built. Despite the understanding that climate change cannot be stopped without halting the damage we’re doing to land-based ecosystems, the planet has lost a Gauteng-sized area of the Amazon rainforest since the beginning of the year.

On the other hand, almost all the IPCC’s model scenarios that have a reasonable chance of keeping us within 2°C of climate change depend heavily on linking land-based sequestration (primarily reforestation) with as-yet-unproven carbon capture and storage systems.

Failing that, a more recent study highlighted the role that restoring forests and preventing forest conversion can play in closing the mitigation gap, helping to keep us below 2° of 1.5°C climate change.

In fact, as the SRCCL highlights, changing how we work on the land could deliver up to a third of the reductions we need by 2050. This is not to say that the better use of land is sufficient in itself: with 80% of the world’s energy still coming from fossil fuels, transitioning to a renewable energy economy as rapidly as possible is key to steering away from disastrous climate impacts. But our use of land may be one area in which gains can be won simply and at the lowest cost.

To put this into a South African perspective, and as we all know: land is never just land. With 10% of South Africa’s surface area producing half of the run-off for our rivers, and projected water requirements increasing, there are clearly cases and areas where prioritising natural management and low-impact land-use is critical. Similarly, 13% of South Africa’s land that is arable must be protected and invested in for that key use, particularly given the projected decrease in arable land by 2050.

Restoration of degraded land and sustainable management has huge potential to drive rural jobs and the economy, with national government strategic documents highlighting this. The IPCC report highlights that improving agricultural productivity, restoration of degraded land and improved soil management are three key areas that address both mitigation and adaptation needs, and therefore key activities to be pursued in at-risk developing nations such as South Africa.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has highlighted that we will need to increase the supply of food by 50% to meet our 2050 population needs, even while producing sufficient sustainable biofuels for our aviation industry. However, as climate change decreases the amount of arable land, agriculture will be dependent on smart intensification linked with low water-use irrigation. In other words, we need to do more with what we already have. The uncertainty around aspects of land-use and agricultural management, including land reform and tenure, farm size, farm type, production for subsistence or markets, and access to capital, also means we may well not be about to meet that future demand

What then does this mean for South Africa’s land reform programme, and the broader planning and policy environment that governs how the land is used?

First, we need integrated planning on our landscapes, linked to a mix of policies that address barriers and opportunities for the land sector. This means balancing critical biodiversity and water reserves with essential agricultural land, prioritising low-impact areas for the roll-out of renewable energy technologies, densifying urban areas and minimising the footprint for non-essential mining activities. This cannot be addressed through a single policy, but rather requires a mix of activities that fall under the remit of different government agencies. It requires oversight and vision, absenting which we will continue to convert and lose the potential of the land: death by a thousand cuts.

Second, where land reform is undertaken, there must be comprehensive and appropriate support provided to the new landowners. Small-scale or cooperative agriculture can be incredibly productive, but realising sustainable intensification requires skills development, adequate inputs and long-term investment.

Third, we need to restructure our food systems. It is frankly criminal that more than a quarter of South African children under the age of five experience diet-related stunting when there is sufficient food to go around. Much of the one-third of all food that goes to waste at present must be reduced, and more emphasis on and access to unprocessed foods will facilitate healthier diets. While some people in South Africa need more protein in their diet, a transition away from consuming beef and larger livestock can drive a significant reduction in the footprint of agriculture.

Fourth, we need to hold fast to no-go areas which are critical for biodiversity and ecosystem needs. This means ensuring that places such as the Mabola Protected Environment, which falls under that essential 10% of the land, must be considered inviolate. But more broadly, the conversion of natural land for agriculture, mining and settlements must be reduced. Securing the carbon and biodiversity in remaining natural areas is the only way to help them resist and adapt to the increasing pressure of a shifting climate.

Finally, as we transition away from our fossil fuel and coal-heavy society, we must capitalise on the process of driving ecological restoration and undertaking agricultural intensification to realise the huge employment opportunities – and even better, to drive sustainable rural livelihoods. The challenge of the just transition is not just to address jobs, but to really transform the legacy of inequality that has proven so hard to shake. Changing our relationship to the land, rebuilding natural capital and taking advantage of climate finance to improve the management is an opportunity to address both climate impacts and social justice.

The impact of South Africa’s land use is small compared to the Amazon and the rainforests of central Africa, because our land is much less productive overall. At the same time, the value of the land and of conserving natural ecosystems is much higher, and particularly in marginal areas where as much as 75% of commercial operations are under threat.

Rethinking how we use our land and driving integrated land planning and husbandry must be as much a part of our national vision as the realities of ownership. If we truly value it, we should act as if our lives depend on it.

Because, in many respects, they do. DM