EC leads climate change battle

THE Eastern Cape government has declared its intention to lead from the front in the war against climate change, with a landmark multi-benefit project agreement signed at the Eastern Cape Climate Change Conference in East London yesterday (June 08 2011). The “spekbook project” as it is proudly and affectionately referred to by the officials that have been working on it is the first in the country that will use biodiversity to sequester carbon.

As Eastern Cape Premier Noxolo Kiviet, her Department of Economic Development and Environmental Affairs MEC Mcedisi Jonas and national Environmental Affairs Deputy Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi settled themselves to sign the memorandum of understanding — word was whizzing around the gathering that several overseas news networks were chasing the story.

Former national environment department director-general Chippy Olver, now a senior environmental consultant, told The Herald he believed the project had huge potential.

“If we as a country had to take one project to present at COP 17 [the UN-led climate change summit in Durban in December], this should be it. It’s the real deal.”

The project began as a research initiative led by a group of botanists and conservation scientists at NMMU, led by Prof Richard Cowling, as well as at Rhodes and Stellenbosch universities.

It was tentatively expanded with the help of the then working for water programme and the departments of water affairs and forestry and the environment, and is now managed by government’s Natural Resources’ Programme. So while government has been supportive of it for some time — this agreement is a pledge from Bhisho to give it “resources and direction”, potentially catapulting it into the mainstream, conference facilitator JP Louw said.

All woody vegetation absorbs and stores carbon and the rainforests are best at this because of their huge trees. Spekboom is a close second, however, because although it grows comparatively low, it is intensively branched and also accumulates thick layers of leaf litter, where CO2 is also absorbed.

Another reason it is such a good carbon-fixer, as programme consultant Ayanda Sigwela explained, is because it has evolved capability to do the job in wet and dry conditions.

EC Parks and Tourism Agency chief executive CEO Sybert Liebenberg said more than a million hectares of land in the province have become worthless because of vegetation degradation and soil erosion. The programme will help to restore this value in terms of habitat for wildlife, tourism and other land use opportunities but also its water catchment capability where it is in the mountains.

The programme will be rolled out initially in the Baviaanskloof and Great Fish nature reserves. It will would be labour-intensive, involving large work teams planting truncheons of spekboom, “creating up to 1000 jobs”, Liebenberg said.

“Besides this, it will create an alternative economy where carbon credits are earned and which can then be sold on the international market.”

Ratified by the UN, carbon trading allows wealthy governments or companies in the developed world to trade off some of their emissions by buying credits from approved sequestration or low-carbon projects in the developing world. It has been criticised by some activists as allowing heavy emitters to carry on with “business as usual”.

But Sigwela said this trade would be a key component of the spekboom project.

“It would earn us hundreds of millions of rand for doing something that has multiple benefits in other key ways as well.””

Earlier yesterday, Premier Kiviet emphasised that the conference “must not be just another talk shop”.

“The emphasis must be on action and future benefits.”

Referring to the unseasonable storms yesterday in Gauteng yesterday, Mabudafhasi stressed that climate change was already here.

” We say bring a stick to kill this snake, but the snake is already in the house …  Yet I commend us for not lamenting. We must take this thing head on.”

A motif through the earlier speeches was that all residents of the province should unite in doing what they could to combat climate change.

But Sigwela took issue with this during question time, saying it was clear from government’s own statistics that the state coal-fired power stations are the overwhelming CO2 emitters and climate-change culprits in this country and that most residents have very little to do with the size of the problem.

“And yet government is now building two more of these plants [Medupi in Limpopo and Kusile in Mpumalanga]. If they used all the money they are using for that and rather spent it on poor households, making them resilient to climate change, would that not be better?

“Not everyone is the main culprit.”

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