Turning climate change, with innovation, into an opportunity – #WEF20

The overall message from most of the participants and speakers at the World Economic Forum was that we need to change how we conduct business to save a planet that is experiencing more extreme weather and an increase in temperatures. At WEF, George Soros pronounced that the ‘fate of the world’ is at stake. US President Donald Trump however rejected that it was a crisis denouncing the ‘prophets of doom’ earlier in the week. It comes as bush fires are still burning in Australia; drought is leading to food shortages in Zimbabwe and most areas of the world are experiencing more extreme weather. The southern countries of the planet and Africa in particular is predicted to be the most vulnerable to climate change. But what does that mean for us at the southern tip of Africa? The Head of the Food Systems Initiative and member of WEF’s Executive Committee, Sean de Cleene says the exact impact is hard to predict. He said there were ways in which southern Africa could adapt with innovation and not only survive but turn it into an opportunity. – Linda van Tilburg

This coverage of the global conversation on change, is brought to you by BrightRock. The first ever needs matched life insurance that changes as your life changes.


Everybody’s wondering what’s going to happen with global warming. I’m speaking to Sean de Cleene from New Zealand. He’s head of Food Systems Initiative and a member of the Executive Committee of the World Economic Forum. Let’s talk rugby first. What do you say about the win of the Springboks?

That was wonderful. I just thought it was a magic occasion for South Africa. I lived in South Africa for many years and so am very partial to South African rugby and I just thought South Africa’s time had come and it obviously showed that they were playing for something much bigger than rugby. For the world and for everyone this was a great thing.

With regards to global warming, they always say the southern countries – which includes New Zealand and South Africa in particular – would have a problem. There’s already food shortages and droughts. How do you think the South would be affected by global warming?

I also lived in Australia for many years and it’s interesting being back in Australia over Christmas seeing the fires and you see this happening in real time. What’s happening is the rest of the world on average, has gone up about one degree, Australia is now up two degrees – because of its proximity to the Antarctic and the way that the cold air/hot air currents were shifting – so in a way you’re already seeing that jump of what one degree can do, to suddenly jump two degrees, you’re moving into much more volatility, it’s much more extreme. So there were obviously a lot of issues that underpin the fires in Australia – droughts and all of those kinds of things – but what it does show is the extreme nature and I think that’s what we’re going to start to see more of and we won’t necessarily be able to predict in what form that will happen, but I think we’re going to see more of those extreme events in a much quicker rotation than we would have historically.

The food urgency wouldn’t be in countries like New Zealand and Australia, it would be in Africa. Are you starting to talk about that because there’s already food shortages in Zimbabwe?

I am. We see it happening in real time in Southern Africa. I think if you’re a smallholder farmer in Southern Africa, or if you’re a farmer of any kind in Southern Africa, it wasn’t that many years ago where you could quite easily predict when the rains were coming and when the seasons were. The ability to do that has gone and so we both have to be able to look at how we can mitigate against this and at the same time we have to also look at how we can adapt to that because the reality is here. This isn’t a future scenario. This is happening now. That means building the kinds of systems that will allow the countries in Southern Africa to be more resilient to that change.

PREMIUM: Is Southern Africa sleepwalking into a climate catastrophe? – Wall Street Journal

There’s a backlash against genetically modified foods, which will probably help us grow hardier crops. Is that something we need to overcome to supply food to those areas?

Look at it slightly differently. We really need to look at innovation generally. Genetically modified foods is just one particular track, gene editing is a whole broader area, there’s all different forms and ways in which we can look at innovation. What we need to do is actually accelerate how we can use innovation to help in what is effectively becoming a real crisis. Innovation in plant technology and innovation in the kind of financing and risk tools that we need, innovation in the use of data systems. So how do we do that in a way that that makes sense? It also means innovation in business models and innovation in the way we create policy. I would take that broader innovation lens – not just looking at it from a strictly GM side – and then say do we have the right ecosystem in place to adapt the way that we need to?

We probably don’t. So is there openness of governments – I’m talking Southern Africa – is there an acceptance there that we need to change whatever model so that even a subsistence farmer would be able to survive?

In many ways – we’ve seen this many times in Southern or Eastern Africa – there’s that ability to leapfrog innovation. We saw that with cell phone technology coming originally out of South Africa and how they use cell phones and the innovation around that. We’re now seeing that in terms of financing in Kenya, really dynamic cutting edge technology use that can actually leapfrog and allow us to create the systems that will allow us to – not just adapt to this – but to go even further having a positive influence on how this can work. Southern Africa is an agricultural region and actually in many ways, if we rethink farming practices, we would look at the way we subsidise farming and would create subsidies to encourage farmers to take more regenerative practices. Actually the millions of hectares that are available in Southern Africa could become a carbon sink where farmers could actually trade that on a carbon market and make a secondary income out of improving the quality of the soil or something like that, and so all of these innovations are coming on stream.

What exactly do you mean by carbon sink?

It’s the ability to draw down or lock carbon instead of releasing it. That can be done through trees, it can be done through the soil, it can be done through mangroves, it can even be done through seaweed and through the ocean floor. All of these can act as a carbon sink and what we need to do is unlock that, so that forest areas and natural areas – even farming areas – can actually become a viable economic commodity in their own right while we need to deal with the issues around reducing carbon. In many ways – for Southern Africa – the challenge is more adaptation to the weather challenges there and then really starting to think through how can we actually turn this into an opportunity. That’s what we can really make work.

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