Processes that support economic development are now significantly altering the climate, the oceans and land surfaces. Countries have the task of balancing the acceleration of economic growth and transformation with the sustainable use of environmental resources and responding to climate change. The transitions and changes that are needed are amongst the most challenging ever faced by modern societies.
Complex systems in transition
South Africa presents a challenging case. Its economy is highly dependent on fossil fuels and the country is in great need of developmental initiatives. Yet, many sectors of society are vulnerable to climate change. South Africa also faces significant climate-related challenges over the next few decades, across multiple social and economic sectors. Sound and creative applied academic work that reaches across disciplines will help to inform a climate-resilient, just and equitable development path for the country.
SU is well placed to address this complexity. It hosts the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) in the School of Public Leadership. This centre aligns complexity thinking, sustainability science and transdisciplinary research methodology with cross-cutting research themes involving food, water, energy and urban systems – all of which are vulnerable to climate change.
The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Energy, hosted in the Faculty of Engineering, focuses on the move towards the implementation of renewable energy solutions in food systems and value chains to decrease the climate impacts of food production, but also to increase the productivity and resilience of African farmers. While the CoE is specifically framed around energy, it also investigates how energy issues interact with, or impact on, other aspects such as water, economics and social components. The centre grapples with complex and multifaceted problems.
The work done at these two centres is highly multidisciplinary, often transdisciplinary, and aimed at addressing developmental, environmental and social problems, as well as the nexus between them. These centres create a platform for innovative research where scientists from multiple disciplines and universities can collaborate. This enables them to tackle research complexity and to contribute to the training and development of a cohort of African researchers that can help solve developmental challenges.
SU remains at the forefront of delivering innovations in sustainability related to climate change. The Development and Rule of Law Programme (DROP) focuses on the extent to which climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts connect with a broader sustainable development agenda. This programme – which is also closely linked to the Stellenbosch University Water Institute (SUWI) – researches and promotes sustainable development law and policy.
Innovations towards sustainability are key to adapting to or mitigating climate change. The Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at SU, for instance, does research on energy efficiency and alternative energy, with a focus on addressing the challenges faced when using related technologies. This research supports the transition towards renewable and cleaner energy sources while simultaneously reducing the water footprint of energy production.
Another example of SU's innovations towards sustainability includes its contribution to the influential and award-winning Western Cape Climate Change Response Framework, which was published in 2016 and is currently being implemented. The SmartAgri plan is a response to the predicted demand for an implementable climate change response plan specifically for the agricultural sector in the Western Cape. This sector faces declining winter rainfall and rising temperatures due to climate change, threatening highly productive and high-value enterprises.
Documenting change on land and in oceans Research on climate risks and adaptation to climate change is carried out in many of SU's centres and across departments and faculties. Foundational research on reconstructions of past climates remains vital for putting current trends into context. The Department of Earth Sciences contributes new knowledge in this field, using “proxy indicators" that can reconstruct climate history over thousands to tens of thousands of years.
In the Department of Botany and Zoology, scientists have reassessed the biodiversity risks of climate change by projecting impacts on several thousand plant and animal species over the next few decades. Models predict that, if global greenhouse gas emissions are not substantially reduced over the next decade, there will be significant changes in the distribution of ecosystem types on land, and increased risks of extinction for between 10% and 20% of endemic species.
Experimental work in the same department has shown that some endemic species, such as lizards, may be able to adapt their behaviour and thereby reduce their risk of local extinction, indicating that resilience may be underestimated.
While current forecasts of global change impacts on biodiversity often assume that species can survive in the long term under the environmental conditions in which they currently occur, collaborative work done in the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology points to mismatches, suggesting that forecasts are often too optimistic.
The response of insects, which are especially sensitive to temperature changes and moisture availability, to climate change is critical to many sectors such as agriculture, human health and biodiversity. Research by members of the DSINRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (C I B) and the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology has concluded that forecasting of pest damage in the context of climate change is a complex endeavour. A holistic approach is needed to ensure robust forecasting for precision agriculture.
Since 2011, prolonged droughts across South Africa have forced water users to examine farming system risks and efficiencies. Through SUWI, studies in the Breede River catchment have focused on how irrigated agriculture has been affected by the recent multi-year drought in the Western Cape. These studies explore links between the individual farm scale, where efficient irrigation scheduling and appropriate technologies are applied on suitable soils, and the implications at regional scales. The studies also consider the spectrum of situations in which water suppliers must optimally manage the quantity and quality of water distributed to farmers.
To minimise drought impacts, the Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at SU has a research focus on the ecological restoration of waterways and associated catchments.
Recent surveys indicate that willingness by some water users to change practices based on longer term climate change predictions and water availability is still very low. Nonetheless, collective arrangements through water associations were successful in allowing many farmers to negotiate the recent drought.
Focus on marine and coastal climate risks and opportunities
Climate risks are multifaceted and are not limited to the land alone. Marine risks include damage to coral reefs, estuarine ecosystems and living marine resources, sea level rise and ocean acidification, in combination with other anthropogenic pressures such as overfishing.
Exciting opportunities exist through the restoration of the seagrass (Zostera capensis) in South African estuaries allowing for increasing carbon sequestration that offers benefits from an adaptation and mitigation perspective.
Elsewhere, research has shown the genomic diversity of many key exploited fisheries resources is very low and likely linked to high fishing pressure. As genomic diversity is key to resilience under changing climates, this research highlights the importance of genomic diversity for supporting resilient fisheries into the future.
Changing carbonate chemistry is an important mechanism through which climate change affects marine systems. Baseline data for ocean pH is largely biased in favour of open ocean systems, as opposed to marine shorelines and estuarine systems, as is our present understanding of how pH is changing. To understand temporal and spatial variability in coastal carbonate chemistry, the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (C I B) has established a baseline database across five coastal locations in the Western Cape. Early trends indicate that in winter, Saldanha Bay already experiences pH levels lower than those predicted for 2100 in the open ocean. This research is building a valuable resource for multiple users, including policymakers.
Providing education for change
SU's research feeds into a variety of teaching programmes on campus aimed at preparing the next generation for the complex challenges to come. Connectedness is key, as is seeking new and innovative ways to communicate, educate and conduct outreach programmes about climate change.
SU aims to establish a transdisciplinary School for Climate to encourage further connectedness across faculties, to provide a platform for collaborative learning and research, and to generate knowledge, ideas, applications and products. The hope is that it will stimulate intellectual synthesis between the climate related knowledge systems of faculties, the public sector's climate policy and initiatives, private sector climate redress and innovation capacity, and the social impact mission of the university, all in support of the transition to a climate-resilient society and a low-carbon economy. SU's vision for this school is for it to be a world-class institution for climate and related studies in, and for, Africa.
* This article featured in the latest edition of Stellenbosch University (SU)'s multi-award winning publication Research at Stellenbosch University. Produced annually by SU's Division for Research Development (DRD), this flagship publication offers the national and international research community as well as other interested parties a comprehensive, yet accessible overview of innovative and interesting research being done at the institution.The theme of the edition is Research for Impact which is one of SU's core strategic themes from its Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019–2024.
Click here to access the virtual copy.