26 July 2006

South Africa: Refreshing Response to Realities of Climate Change


Johannesburg — IT WILL take innovation to deal with climate change and Espoo, the lake and forest "city" outside Helsinki in Finland where Nokia is headquartered, was a good place from which to send that message.

We needed it after the Group of Eight nation's depressing and predictable failure to provide leadership on energy and climate change in St Petersburg last week. Fortunately, just across the Baltic Sea at Espoo, the ground was moving, literally and figuratively. Climate experts met with counterparts from health care and disaster management, agriculture and water supply to work out how to live with the climate variability and change generated by the hot air from the world's leading economies.

The good news is that action is starting. The talk was not whether there is a problem -- that only happens where facts collide with entrenched interests in places like the White House and Arabian sheikdoms. Even Jeffrey Sachs, adviser to the United Nations' Kofi Annan took time off from beating up the International Monetary Fund to acknowledge that climate change is contributing to poverty.

So it was not about how to stop climate change, which in a week of new temperature records in both Europe and north America would have been like asking an ant to stop an elephant. Mitigation efforts must continue but climate change is happening right now.

What could be done differently, the climatologists asked the practitioners? What could be done better with appropriate information and instruments to make society more resilient? Ever since the first householder put in a rainwater tank, water managers have been living with climate and its vagaries. Rich nations have built huge infrastructures to enable them to cope with climate although this can go too far, as in New Orleans. More sensibly, Europe and Japan now cite public interest and give rivers more room by curtailing the private right to build in stupid places.

Many poorer countries know what they need to do. More infrastructure to store water and extend irrigation farming would make them less vulnerable. But often they cannot even keep their home taps flowing during their current floods and droughts because they don't have the means. Reasonably, they ask why they should worry about tomorrow's climate change if they cannot afford to manage today's drought.

Espoo highlighted that what we do today, particularly our investments in cities and infrastructure, locks us into patterns of behaviour for decades to come. The challenge for developing countries is thus to leapfrog into the future by making long-term choices.

The focus must move from mitigation (reducing greenhouse gases to limit future warning) to adaptation (learning to live in a warmer future).

Meanwhile, the rich world already sees business opportunities in this process. Former Finnish prime minister Esko Aho, who led the transformation of the Finnish economy from Soviet service station to the home of Nokia, was straightforward. He heads Europe's Expert Group on Research and Innovation (R&D) and explained that R&D, which Europe is good at, turns money into knowledge; the innovation that he seeks turns knowledge into money. So Finland wants to create markets for innovative environmental products (and, to make the point, Airports Company SA has just spent R25m on Finnish weather equipment to upgrade our airports).

But what can Africa do? First, we must noisily apply the "polluter must pay" principle. All that rich-world hot air costs us dearly -- up to $3,5bn to adapt existing urban water infrastructure; $2,3bn annually in lost hydropower; about 10% more ($4,2bn) to "climate-proof" the ambitious agricultural plans of the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

Forecasters believe that, in parts of west Africa, good climate information can help increase farmers' production 30%. But where will they sell their crops? Without progress on trade negotiations, there will be limited ability to use the science that is on offer.

So Finland's counterculture view of climate change is refreshing. They see opportunities in a warmer future. They will not even have to rebuild Helsinki's waterfront to cope with sea level rise -- since the 2km-thick ice sheet that covered it during the last ice age 20 000 years ago melted, the whole country has been rebounding upwards at 40mm a year.

That underlined an important part of Espoo's message. Climate change will bring opportunities as well as problems. Like so much in innovation, it will be the early adapters who gain most from them.

Muller is a visiting research fellow at Wits University's Graduate School of Public and Development Management, and was in Espoo to give the plenary presentation on how water managers are dealing with climate change.

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