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Local Authorities need to be involved in climate change because….
Leila Mahomed – Urban SEED Programme, Sustainable Energy Africa, July 2002

Local authorities in South Africa face a multitude of developmental issues everyday. They deal with it within increasing constraints of pressing backlogs including housing, sanitation delivery and even electricity connections; limited capacity in terms of appropriate skill and person-time; a very structured and ‘siloed’ working environment where some departments do not have the opportunity to talk to each other even if they are working on similar issues; decreasing internal resource allocation and natural resource degradation and scarcity (such as water) on which we depend for economic growth and development and at times, even political musical chairs.

It cannot be easy to make decisions in such an environment. And when faced with either concentrating on providing access to energy to its residents or dealing with a fairly new phenomenon of climate change, it seems almost logical to choose the former. But in an era of scarcity we need to think creatively and we need to think long-term. This would be called sustainable thinking. So the answer to the access to energy question should not be seen in isolation to climate change but as part and parcel of it. The answer then to the access question could be blowing in the wind as opposed to bellowing out smoke and in the long term the former will be a healthier, safer alternative. Climate change should not be seen by local authorities as the evil or deflecting flip side to access to energy issues but rather as a certainty that must be dealt with when deciding what forms of energy should be used to fill the access gap. Climate change also makes us think more about resource efficiency and in turn this has cost saving implications. Local authorities constitutionally have the responsibility for directing the development path of a city and its people. At a time where poverty alleviation should be at the top of the agenda of a municipality the impact and opportunities climate change brings to our country should not be ignored.

There are four primary reasons why climate change is important to municipalities:

There are opportunities for addressing social development needs and
There are opportunities for internal cost savings and cross-departmental co-operation.
Local Authorities need to be part of the solution because at a local level it will be the municipality who will face and bear the responsibility of the consequences of climate change (floods, food scarcity etc).
Even if local authorities dismiss this idea of climate change as an item of the northern agenda it will come anyway. Many local authorities are being asked to participate in cleaner development mechanism programmes and if they do not make the time to understand climate change issues they may not be able to participate as equal partners.
The social development opportunities of climate change can come in the form of possibly warmer affordable housing with the installation of ceilings and energy efficient light bulbs. Poor households use at least 25% of their household budget to meet their energy needs. Cleaner Development Mechanism (CDMs) Projects, such as the ceiling and efficient lighting in low cost housing, proposed by the City of Cape Town and SouthSouthNorth in Khayelitsha means that residents will be warming and lighting their house for much less and saving a significant proportion of their household budget. Households therefore save money that can go towards education and food for their family as well as paying for the rest of the electricity that is being used. In Soweto a number of houses are being electrified per year -are given ‘access’ - but thousands are being disconnected monthly as they cannot afford to pay for the service. Warming the house in this simple way also has a number of positive knock on effects such as reducing the burning of coal or unhealthy energy sources and decreasing the health risks associated with damp, cold and bad indoor air-quality. In our country where TB and HIV/AIDS poses such a huge health and social cost we cannot afford to not take all opportunities to provide warmer healthier and more affordable homes to people. The likelihood of installing ceilings in low cost housing (where the subsidy is so limited) would also not have been an option without the CDM opportunity despite the dire need for it. Local authorities need to ensure that CDM projects that come into their cities have a social development agenda – it is quite likely that business will seize all the carbon trading opportunities while scoring doubly in reducing their operating costs through energy or process efficiency.

The opportunities for internal cost savings and cross-departmental co-operation within a municipality could be in the form of retrofitting a municipal building or street lighting with energy efficient lightbulbs and thus saving thousands of rands in operational costs. These sorts of projects are very real CDM projects the City of Cape Town and other cities around the country are working on as part of ICLEI’s Cities for Climate Protection programme.

For more information on the City of Capetown projects listed here please go to: http://www.capetown.gov.za/enviro/emd/projects.asp

CDMs and the debates that follow also hold opportunities for co-ordinated solutions to our traffic congestion, air and water pollution and economic development problems. As a single decision maker over a large energy budget, local authorities can also have a significant impact on mitigating climate change.

Climate change is coming and so are the opportunities. Local Authorities, particularly the metros should be gearing themselves up for it and a first step would be acknowledging it and then working towards an energy vision and master plan for a city that is based on principles of sustainable development.