Mega climate shocks for SA biodiversity — government report
Tiara Walters
11 October 2019

Ninety scientific institutions led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute have released a shock report that unveils waves of unprecedented climate impacts tearing across South Africa’s globally important wild assets.

South Africa’s first national biodiversity assessment in nearly a decade represents the findings of leading institutions such as the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the CSIR, and the contributions of 470 scientific and conservation professionals.

The vastly varied ecosystems within South Africa’s borders and coastal waters, the assessment notes, hosts such exceptional species richness that the country ranks among Earth’s top 10 “megadiverse” nations.

Much of South Africa’s terrestrial, inland aquatic, estuarine and marine realms — the key areas featuring in the assessment — have evolved to provide niche support to an ecological heritage that exists only at the foot of the African continent. According to the assessment, this remarkable web of life delivers Earth’s second-highest rate of unique wildlife issuing from an ark of nearly 70,000 animal species.

Some 80% of nearly 500 terrestrial ecosystem types are endemic: in a word, unmatched in the living record. Half the country’s reptile, amphibian, butterfly and freshwater fish species are also endemic. It also presides over more than 8,000 plant species, nearly 2,000 of which are endemic. Botany geeks need hardly look further: as the assessment points out, no other country beats this neck of the woods for its variety of succulent plants.

It’s an extraordinary fact that some 40% of 10,000 native marine animal species are also unique — granting South Africa the responsibility of protecting, among others, 10% of all global coral species. Marion Island, 1,200 nautical miles south-east of Cape Town, belongs to South Africa, and therefore the task of conserving a key nesting habitat of that great romancer of sub-Antarctic skies: the wandering albatross.

Almost half a million people in South Africa draw their income from a biodiversity-related job, while biodiversity-based tourism is valued at more than R30-billion annually. The informal African traditional medicine industry is worth about R18-billion a year. 

For now, that’s where the assessment’s celebration ends. Using as headline indicators threat status and “how well species and ecosystem types are represented in the protected area network”, this meta-analysis probed more than 1,000 ecosystem types and found that almost half are threatened. An encouraging two-thirds of ecosystems enjoy protection, but — viewed from a more urgent perspective — this also means that a hefty 31% of ecosystems don’t.

All of South Africa’s 20,500 described plants were assessed: nearly 3,000 are threatened. Mammal, bird, reptiles, amphibian, freshwater fish, butterfly and dragonfly species were also studied, plus selected marine and estuarine fishes and invertebrates. This produced nearly 3,000 assessed species of which 360 face the guillotine of potential extinction. Some 60% of South African fauna and flora are “well protected”. But, by inference, an astonishing 40% is not protected.

The assessment’s startling findings reveal the climate crisis as the biggest hazard among all dangers to South Africa’s biodiversity. The term “climate change” appears no fewer than 126 times throughout the 214-page “synthesis” report, which focuses on the main findings from seven additional reports designed for application by a scientific and technical audience.

As an indicator of how deeply the crisis has wedged itself into every sphere of South African biodiversity, this number of mentions towers above other threats. The terms “pollution” and “habitat loss” receive the next number of mentions at 66 and 61 times respectively. “Mining” comes in at 55 times. 

Nearly 500 climatic disasters impacting 140 million people’

Like a near-apocalyptic record of South African biodiversity, the assessment delivers head-spinning blow upon head-spinning blow flowing directly from the crisis. 

“Increases of 2-4°C are predicted for southern Africa by 2050, and confidence is therefore high that climate change will have dramatically escalating impacts on South Africa over the coming decades.”

This warning of “dramatically escalating” blows emerges from the heart of a normally cautious local science community, placing in grave perspective the recurring ghosts of climate past, crisis shocks happening right now and potentially stark future scenarios.

The assessment states that, in the past four decades, “southern Africa recorded nearly 500 climatic disasters impacting 140 million people”. Since the early 1970s, “mean monthly, seasonal and annual temperature increases of more than 1°C have been observed over much of South Africa in the past 50 years… accompanied by the intensification of extreme events such as droughts, heavy rainfall, coastal storm surges, strong winds and wildfires”.

“Negative impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem function have now been observed in all realms,” including “large-scale die-offs of desert plant communities” as well as “shifting migration times and range contractions for bird species. Fynbos community composition has also been shown to have altered due to climate change.”

The climate crisis is, at present, “triggering large-scale spatial, temporal and compositional shifts in biodiversity. Species’ population-level changes are being translated into community-level reorganisations, and even regime shifts — for example, bush encroachment — which can impair ecological function,” the assessment’s authors state. Over the past few decades “these changes have been noted in South African ecosystems from estuaries, coral communities, open savannas to montane streams, exerting pressure either directly or indirectly on all species within these habitats”. 

From arid badlands to woody thicket, the crystal ball of climate predicts a motley mosaic

“Unmitigated climate change”, the assessment says, is “likely to cause significant changes in South Africa’s ecosystem structure and functioning by as early as mid-century and to result in significant losses in biodiversity in the latter half of this century”.

Far from producing a single homogeneous desert, some of the most “pervasive structural changes” to have emerged in parts of southern Africa during the past century is a woody thicket. 

“This global trend, known as ‘bush encroachment’ … is widespread in southern African grasslands, open savannas and mixed grass/shrub ecosystems,” the assessment warns. “Research has shown that a changing climate and rising CO2 are probable background drivers of extensive and broad-scale switches towards greater woody plant cover.”

Nearly 100% of nature’s pollution filters are under the biggest threat — but least protected

Of all the resounding alarms raised in this report, threats to water security rank among the most pressing. 

Through the redistribution of extreme weather events, tropical cyclones could move eastward, away from the African continent — but that’s not good news. Here the consequence is the loss of rain to areas such as the Maputaland coastal plain of KwaZulu-Natal. 

A hotter world signals game-changing movements in rainfall, and a ravaging new climate chapter for unprotected estuarine and inland wetland ecosystems.

Nearly 99% of estuarine and 88% of wetland areas are threatened, making nature’s most important pollutant-filtration systems the most vulnerable, yet least protected ecosystems of all. Fewer than 2% are “well-protected”.

“South Africa’s 12 estuarine lakes are in crisis” — not only as a result of “extensive infrastructure development in the Estuarine Functional Zone”, but “major climate change impacts” involving a scale of warnings, from coastal acidification to changes in rainfall intensity and seasonality. Cool temperate West Coast estuaries, for example, are expected to experience a “decline in primary production and loss of nursery function as a result of reduced freshwater input”. 

“Climate change will not only increase the risks to estuary ecosystems under significant pressure at present” — such as 840 million litres of wastewater gushing daily into estuaries — but also to the human communities, including subsistence, commercial and recreational fishers, and “associated infrastructure and property” surrounding estuaries.

In southern Africa, the assessment warns, large lakes have “shown increases in aquatic temperature”. 

As shifts sweep across these aquatic systems, disease outbreaks and aggressive invasive species turn victors, shouldering out native residents who have evolved within the delicate balance of “Goldilocks”-type conditions. For the good guys, however, there’s nowhere to go: “Many freshwater species are range-restricted” and the “fragmented state of ecosystems may prohibit range-shift migrations”. As South Africa becomes drier, human-driven water abstraction will tighten the vice on aquatic ecosystems and species.

“Significant reductions in amphibians’ range sizes are probable early impacts,” the assessment says. “Evidence of early impacts of climate change on species is rapidly accumulating, with 70 amphibian species contracting their geographic ranges.”

Although increased extinction risk is evident for most groups, “freshwater fishes are the most threatened species group” that has been fully assessed. This group embraces high endemism: half South Africa’s fish species don’t occur anywhere else on Earth. Two-thirds of these unique species are endangered.

Judicious coastal development that avoids sensitive areas’

Twenty new marine protected areas were declared in 2019, even so: one of the assessment’s central messages is that “coastal biodiversity assets” are at risk. “Fisheries stock status is not assessed for 90% of the more than 770 harvested marine taxa, and of those 10% that have been assessed, more than a third are overexploited or collapsed.” 

The assessment also cites the climate as a pivotal threat to the southern Indian Ocean world of Marion Island — a breeding cacophony of sub-Antarctic fur and elephant seals, as well as millions of seabirds ranging from rockhopper penguins to wandering albatrosses. Here, mean annual air and sea temperatures have increased at twice the global rate, intensifying existing pressures on seabird chicks who, among other island residents, are being eaten alive by invasive house mice introduced by former sealers in the early 1800s

As sea-level rise threatens to reclaim highly built-up coastal areas, the assessment urges “judicious coastal development that avoids sensitive areas”. This would “minimise further damage, maintain coastal ecological infrastructure and reduce climate risks”.

The human-induced climate crisis is “escalating at unprecedented speed” and is “widely considered a multiplier of other pressures on biodiversity, both exacerbating the effects of these pressures and altering the frequency, intensity and timing of events”. This is affecting “most ecological processes with disruptions evident from the genetic level to the landscape level”.

A raft of recommended interventions, formidable in scope and depth

Aimed at decision-makers in government and civil society’s environmental sectors, the assessment offers ground-breaking tools to tackle South Africa’s biodiversity challenges, including a “first-time assessment of protection levels for species” and a complete map of South African ecosystem types that “seamlessly aligns the terrestrial, marine and estuarine realms through a detailed delineation of seashore ecosystem types”.

To reduce the economic burden of climate disasters and support the country’s National Development Goals, the assessment recommends, among others: 

  • Securing staggeringly important “strategic water source areas”. These “make up only 10% of the land area, but deliver 50% of surface water, supporting half the population and nearly two-thirds of the economy”.
  • As a “research priority”, the assessment urges the estuarine community to harness increasingly accurate climate models to “facilitate better adaptation strategies and ecosystem resilience”.
  • Creating a “deliberate, coherent strategy for detecting and tracking climate change impacts”.
  • Building online citizen science platforms — such as iNaturalist — for monitoring plants, vertebrates and invertebrates, as professional scientists are heavily reliant on such data. 
  • Doing “repeat assessments for invertebrates and species in marine and estuarine realms” to feed more reliable intelligence into the IUCN Red List Index, the global extinction benchmark. 
  • Building real-world safeguards for at least 85% of threatened birds, plants, freshwater fishes, amphibians, mammals and butterflies that are “under protected”.
  • Improving knowledge on how the climate crisis stands to affect the highly sensitive Prince Edward Islands, as “sentinels” of the heating planet. 
  • Producing a first-time national assessment on the threat status of coral species, plus an adequately funded “long-term co-ordinated monitoring programme with fixed transects”.

Produced between 2015-19, the assessment is a hard-hitting scientific achievement offering stunning collaborative insight into the climate crisis as never before documented in native form. The assessment is, in short, South Africa’s biodiversity answer to the UN’s game-changing IPCC Special Report of Global Warming of 1.5°C, released this month a year ago. 

Given that no sector is more important to South Africa’s future than its natural capital, this assessment should be legally required reading for every person in South Africa working towards the National Development Plan’s goals of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030.

We shouldn’t see this as a cost. It has all sorts of benefits’

“The climate change issue is coming home to roost after early warnings since the late 1980s. Three decades later there is nothing to suggest that the ongoing warming trend is slowing. It’s been inexorable and marching along at an unabated pace. You don’t need a very smart scientific instrument to look at the effects of climate change. Use your two eyes,” suggests Stellenbosch University’s Guy Midgley, an authority on global change science and one of the assessment’s lead authors.

However, Midgley says that he is “buoyed by the fact that government continues to invest in this issue. It’s clearly both deeply interested in looking at the risks, advancing adaptations, and investing resources in negotiations. The more we describe and quantify the risks, the better our negotiators on the international stage can ask for resources that unlock funding for action and response.”

Midgley hopes the assessment will inspire a “more coherent” cross-sectoral response embracing multiple conservation as well as land imperatives: “Climate change finds its way to the surface across the sectors — you can’t deal with it in isolation anymore. There’s virtually no other threat that doesn’t interact in some way with climate change background pressure.” However, “more than anything else”, the scientist, who has contributed to South Africa’s national climate reports since the 1990s, advises that “we need on-the-ground observations, which can help us test the rate at which things are happening; to learn through observations to guide our response. It’s not hugely expensive. We can do this right now”. 

Such interventions are “going to stand us in huge stead for decades to come because climate change is going to last decades. Countries that get adaptation right are going to be a success. Countries who fail will run into real problems”.

In a country like South Africa, where the march of artificial intelligence is predicted to fan a furnace of joblessness and inequality, the just transition to a decarbonised economy offers an alternative reality in a “plethora of new jobs and skills”.

“We shouldn’t see this as a cost. It has all sorts of ancillary benefits: better local health when you shut down mines, less acid-mine drainage and even better local energy security as you devolve power production away from centres of power in a more decentralised way. So you’re democratising energy and reducing costs to people. 

“You’re taking the profit flows away from the fossil-fuel based companies and spreading them among everybody. Because everyone then starts to benefit and that can only be good for South Africa.” 

Environment, Forestries and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy’s capacity to heed the assessment’s clarion call and undo late minister Edna Molewa’s chequered decade are bolstered by new developments towards a just transition, especially by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s unequalled $11-billion climate fund.

Laying the foundations to South Africa’s critical decade in the run-up to 2030 — both the hard deadline for nailing the country’s National Development Goals and halving its emissions as Africa’s biggest carbon emitter — is Creecy’s legacy to lose. She is, without doubt, the most important environmental minister South Africa has ever had. 

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