Seizing South Africa’s Urban Opportunity

Photo by Jacques Nel on Unsplash

Savina Carluccio, Programme Director at ICSI, moderated a discussion on urban opportunities for South Africa as part of Africa Cities and Built Environment Day.

Hosted by the Coalition for Urban Transitions (CUT), the discussion followed a presentation by Britta Rennkamp, Senior Researcher at the Africa Climate and Development Institute, on the launch of a new report from CUT, Seizing the Urban Opportunity. The report outlines the financing gaps for city climate action and emphasises the investment opportunities African cities provide. It also looks at how national governments can unlock the potential of cities to address COVID-19 recovery, climate safety and inequality.

Seizing South Africa’s Urban Opportunity

Rennkamp, who is also lead author of the report, presented the key messages, and outlined the challenges and opportunities for South African cities.

With climate change taking a toll across South Africa, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves and floods have intensified across the country, resulting in setbacks for infrastructure rollouts. Rennkamp highlighted that the most marginalised population bears the brunt of these challenges and stressed that dealing with disaster response, adaptation, mitigation, and recovery is a policy challenge.

Rennkamp also suggested that supporting municipalities and people to produce their own power will aid with the decarbonisation of a country that relies heavily on coal for its electricity supply. Other opportunities to decarbonise South African cities include improving transport options for lower-income urban residents, addressing the housing crisis by using sustainable building materials and creating income opportunities, promoting the circular economy, and protecting urban ecosystems through nature-based solutions.

Financing Africa’s green urban transition

Astrid Haas from the African Development Bank spoke about the challenges related to climate finance, infrastructure, and urban opportunity.

‘Urbanisation in Africa provides the opportunity to get low-carbon infrastructure right from the get-go and to avoid the social and economic costs associated with retrofitting,’ she said, adding that ‘the majority of the built environment is yet to come in Africa.’

Haas advised that municipalities need to get their own house in order before they can seek investment elsewhere, and noted that South Africa is far head of other African countries in terms of climate finance, being the first country on the continent to float a green bond. Haas also credits this to the constitutional enabling of municipal finance in the country.

The transition to low-carbon, resilient and inclusive cities

Savina Carluccio then moderated a discussion between Obed Bapela, Deputy Minister for the South African Department for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs; Hastings Chikoko, Regional Director for Africa at C40 Cities; and Dr Meggan Spires from ICLEI Africa. The session focused on how urban action supported by the national governments can drive decarbonisation and economic growth in Africa, with a focus on South Africa.

The discussion emphasised the potential for economic and social benefits from investments in urban decarbonisation and resilience-building. It also highlighted the importance of national governments to place sustainable and resilient low-carbon urban measures at the heart of COVID-19 economic recovery packages and future urban development frameworks to begin unlocking these benefits.

Hastings Chikoko said: ‘We are in a climate emergency, and we need to focus on high-impact actions for adaptation and a just transition…We need to build next-generation mobility: correct the spatial inequalities of the past, reduce journey times, and improve waste management, water security and job creation.’

Deputy Minister Obed Bapela said: ‘The South African government has begun to look at programmes and policies to accelerate policy reform to enable municipalities to produce their own energy.’

The discussion also covered the topic of green economic stimulus and highlighted financing solutions for low-carbon, resilient and inclusive urban development.

Dr Meggan Spires said: ‘There is an opportunity for small- and medium-sized cities to pool projects from multiple municipalities in order to unlock climate finance opportunities that are usually only available to larger cities… We need to be collecting data that backs the need for climate finance. This will help municipalities prove that installing energy-efficient technology will reduce overall costs.’

Savina wrapped up the discussion with emphasis on the need for coordinated governance and cross-sector collaboration: ‘We have a great opportunity here, but the investment needs are substantial. National governments have a vital role to play.’

Recordings of the session will be made available shortly.

Read about other sessions from the day here.