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Climate solutions: A balance between economic development and sustainable use of environmental resources
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 09/05/2022

​Solutions to mitigate the adverse impact of climate change must balance the need for socio-economic development with the sustainable use of our environmental resources, while also responding to climate change.

This is according to Prof Guy Midgley, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Botany and Zoology, and also Acting Director of the School for Climate Studies and the Centre of Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University (SU). He recently delivered the first online Stellenbosch Forum Lecture* of 2022. The overarching theme of this year's Stellenbosch Forum series is “Changing Climates". The aim is to showcase influences of changing environments associated with natural resources, health, education, history and economies; and how research can be impactful in finding possible solutions in such rapidly changing settings.

In his presentation, Midgley said the latest science coming out of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points the way to the transitions and solutions needed to keep emissions down and the global temperature below 2, preferably to 1,5 degrees Celsius.

“The transitions and the changes that are needed have been revealed by the latest IPCC reports and are really amongst the most challenging ever faced by modern society.

“We have the science to understand a lot of it, but the question now is how do we get towards solutions? Do we have the political will? Do we have the economic will and the ability to understand how our current economic system works, to be able to reach some kind of a sustainable future where more people can benefit?"

Midgley said that on a global level there is a set of solutions around energy supply, transport, and land and industry emissions. He added that there's no silver bullet and that these solutions have to be used in conjunction with each other.

To illustrate his point, Midgley used the En-Roads Climate Solutions Simulator to show how a combination of cross-sector solutions can help us reduce emissions and keep the temperature down. This tool was developed by the Climate Interactive Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help policymakers, educators, businesses, the media and the public test and explore cross-sector climate solutions.

The Simulator shows that “for example, on the supply side just working on coal per se is not your silver bullet. Afforestation and deforestation are not particularly helpful. We also need an increase in the efficiency of agriculture, a good economic policy on carbon price and the roll-out of some high-tech solutions.

“We also need to shift the focus to the demand side. If we were to electrify and modernise our transport system and increase the energy efficiency of our cities, we will be making inroads. A big part of our solution is [in] electrifying [our systems].

“Now you are really talking about a new world where we have a lot of renewables, a lot of economic growth, some high-tech solutions, our cities are clean, we have electrified our transport system."

According to Midgley, our efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change and to reduce emissions are a trade-off against the need for adaptation.

“The more we invest to bring emissions down or to avoid emissions, the less we have to adapt. The more we emit, the more we're going to have to adapt. And this really is the crux of the negotiations  ̶ how can we find this optimum balance between investment in mitigation and the avoided need to invest in adaptation?"

Midgley said the decisions we make over the course of the next decade or more will determine where we end up towards the end of the century.

“The world is changing, the atmosphere has changed, the climate has changed. The potential for adverse impacts on human society is ramping up."

*The Stellenbosch Forum series started in 1990 and is aimed at providing opportunities for Stellenbosch University (SU) staff and students as well as members from the public to learn more about the relevant and impactful research being done at SU. Researchers are requested to present their academic research topics in such a way that they are understandable for non-experts in the field. Therefore, these lectures provide the ideal opportunity for critical debate and interesting discussions across disciplinary boundaries.