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Bold leadership is needed on the path to a more equitable and sustainable economy

South Africa is a country that is dis-proportionally affected by the consequences of global warming. Our coast has been identified as one of the regions in the world at highest risk of flooding and studies estimate that wildfires burn approximately 3 million hectares per year.

“Longer dry spells and rising temperatures would only increase that risk,” warns Mario Molina, International Director of The Climate Reality Project. Molina is one of a powerful line-up of internationally recognized climate change and sustainability leaders to address the Green Building Council South Africa (GBCSA) Convention in Johannesburg this July.

An advocate for bold green leadership globally, Mario has worked extensively developing public-private partnerships for Climate Reality, briefed business and government officials on climate and energy policy, and on the critical role of finance in accelerating a clean energy transition.

Mario spearheads former US Vice President and Climate Reality Chairman Al Gore’s international policy, advocacy, and communications programme strategies, leveraging cross-sector partnerships to advance implementation of Nationally Determined Contributions to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) agreement to take collective action to limit average global warming to under 2 degrees centigrade.

Before joining Climate Reality, Mario was responsible for the design, operation and management of the Alliance for Climate Education, working in nearly 30 cities across the US in the development of climate science curricula and energy efficiency projects. Prior to his work in the US, he developed several sustainability and conservation programmes in Australia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Peru.

Molina and climate scientists are unanimous in their findings: this is the decade to take decisive action to prevent catastrophic global warming.

He explains that, as one of over 175 nations signed onto the COP 21 Paris agreement, South Africa will need to submit its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation strategies for vulnerable populations according to its capabilities.

“This historic agreement is the best opportunity the world has to avoid catastrophic climate change, build resiliency into our communities, and transition to a clean energy economy,” says Molina.

It will take bold leadership to set South Africa on a more sustainable course, and do this without delay. Molina reports that in its NDC, South Africa is expected to recognize the importance of adapting to the unavoidable impacts of climate change, and the need for international support through funding and technology transfer.

“The importance of progress towards implementation of the NDC’s cannot be overstated.” To achieve its Paris commitment and meet its development goals, Molina notes that South Africa has a big task ahead”.

Molina adds, “South Africa will need to modernize its energy policies and infrastructure, attract capital towards low-carbon and efficient technologies in all sectors, and build the capacity of its institutions through climate education and readiness. Currently, the country is heavily reliant on coal as a fuel supply and this dependency is nearing the end of its life cycle.”

On the other hand, Molina reports the renewable market in the country is poised for growth. In 2014, South Africa was rated the most attractive emerging photo-voltaic market in the world and its wind industry has seen unexpected and unprecedented success in the last four years.

South Africa averages more than 2,500 hours of sunshine per year, and average solar radiation is about 5 kWh/m2 per day, an excellent source of free energy. “The combination of distributed and utility-scale generation of solar energy could facilitate energy access to communities that are currently not connected to the grid and provide reliable electricity to urban areas,” notes Molina. “Wind has also proven to be a reliable energy source at close to zero net cost.”

In the last four years the wind industry in South Africa has become an almost ZAR75 billion ($4.5 billion-USD) industry with over 1 GW commissioned and another 2.2GW on the way. Millions have been set aside for social and economic development surrounding wind farms.

Globally, clean energy is currently the biggest market opportunity for the private sector, according to Molina. But it has other meaningful benefits too. “Investment in low-carbon development can help countries, especially those in emerging economies, lower emissions and increase resilience to climate change,” he says.

He adds that while the trends are encouraging, the approximately 400 billion USD invested in low-carbon development in 2014 represents less than half of what will be required to meet the Paris commitment.

He is optimistic that by leapfrogging fossil-fuel technologies and mobilizing capital investment in renewable, emerging economies can achieve both mitigation and development goals.

Highlighting the importance of bold green leadership, Molina says: “Post-Paris, business and civil society must remain informed and vigilant while holding governments accountable for implementing policies that hasten a transition to low-carbon, equitable, and sustainable economies.”

South Africa’s built environment professionals are playing a key role in driving demand for renewable energy sources in the country. ‘Build a better world NOW’ is the theme of the ninth Green Building Convention, from 26 to 28 July 2016, at Sandton Convention Centre.

The event, sponsored by Nedbank Corporate and Investment Bank, is designed to inspire today’s and tomorrow’s leaders in the built environment and aims to stimulate awareness, ambition and action to design, build and operate better buildings.