Climate change and Cape Town’s future

Climate change is reshaping our understanding of development pathways, bringing into stark relief how development choices impact us unequally and often in unintended or unforeseen ways as mediated through the environment or earth system. As these impacts and feedback loops become more apparent and better understood, there is growing need to reconfigure the ways we relate to nature and manage resource.

Cities, as places of high population density, where an increasingly large proportion of the world’s population reside and where consumption levels tend to be particularly high, are obvious places to start. Various forms of strategic urban planning create the potential for making cities better prepared to deal with climate change, both in terms of limiting emissions to reduce the rate and scale of changes in the climate (i.e. mitigation) and managing the risks posed by such changes to local residents, businesses, infrastructure and ecosystems (i.e. adaptation).

In Cape Town, South Africa, climate change poses a variety of significant risks. The city has an extensive coastline that is heavily built up and highly exposed to storm surges and increasing sea levels. Cape Town has many residents and businesses that are already very exposed and vulnerable to the effects of winter rainfall and flooding, as well as summer winds and fires. Water demand within the city already periodically outstrips supply and climate projections indicate a likely decrease in annual rainfall and higher summer temperatures, placing additional strain on the water system. Climate change also threatens to increase the city’s already severe disease burden and aggravate conditions of food insecurity and malnutrition. Hotter, drier conditions, in addition to habitat fragmentation caused by ongoing urban expansion, threaten species extinction and a loss of biodiversity that is key to the city’s heritage, cultural identity and a major contributor to the tourism industry.

Cape Town is not only threatened by the impacts of climate change, but also contributes to exacerbating the problem of anthropogenic climate change. Cape Town cumulatively emits high levels of greenhouse gases (an estimated 7.82 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita), mainly from transport and the use of coal-based electricity. This poses a threat to Cape Town’s economic competiveness as carbon emissions become increasingly monitored, regulated and taxed internationally.

All in all, climate change has considerable implications for Cape Town’s future. This is reflected in Cape Town’s City Development Strategy (CDS), adopted by the Cape Town City Council in October 2012, which presents a vision for the city in 2040 and a set of strategies for progressing towards that vision. Within the CDS, climate change is primarily related to concerns regarding food, energy and water security in the city. Emphasis is placed on increasing the resource efficiency of the city over the medium to long-term and the need for research and innovation to support such a transition. This is put forward as an economic opportunity for Cape Town, as a place to develop and test new approaches and technologies for building climate resilience and low carbon growth that, once proven effective, can be exported across the continent.

The CDS highlights Cape Town’s remaining natural resources (e.g. dune cordons and wetlands) as a key strength and source of adaptive capacity in the face of climate change, motivating to restore and maintain the ecosystems that underpin these natural assets, and in the process creating much needed employment opportunities. However, what the CDS currently does not give sufficient attention to is the unequal nature of climate risks (and emissions) within the city that, if left unattended, may well exacerbate social fragmentation and insecurity in Cape Town.

The challenge remains how to implement the high-level strategies laid out in the CDS. This requires strong political commitment, more analytical work, better communication and coordination between sectors, departments and professional groupings, as well as innovative new financing mechanisms.

Anna Taylor is a researcher at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town. As part of the Mistra Urban Futures programme, Anna is working on the governance conditions for adapting to climate change at the city scale. Anna plays a coordinating role in phase 2 of the Climate Change Think Tank, a deliberative space for leaders in Cape Town’s public, private and civil society spheres to debate and collectively construct local pathways for navigating climate change. The Climate Change Think Tank is a forum for commissioning key pieces of strategic research and sharing knowledge amongst researchers and practitioners. Anna is also affiliated to the Stockholm Environment Institute, Oxford Centre. This work is supported by Mistra Urban Futures, a global research and knowledge center in sustainable urban development, funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) and the Mistra Foundation for Strategic Development. This work was also supported by the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies and UN-Habitat.


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One Response to “Climate change and Cape Town’s future”

  1. Asgar

    Great article. I hope that the city follows a systemic approach to it’s research, monitoring and evaluation and information dissemination with regards to its strategy on Climate Change. A multitude of factors are at play when it comes to creating a sustainable city that is able to cope with climate change. Systems thinking is needed as factors that influence climate change and interventions that affect it need to be seen as being part of a system. Therefore as much as innovation is needed, the solutions proposed to should achieve a triple bottom line.


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