The global energy revolution is well under way, with 179 countries around the world, including South Africa, having set renewable energy targets.  According to Mark Swilling, Professor of Sustainable Development in the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University, 57 of these are committed to producing 100% of their energy supplies from renewable sources in the near future.


Prof. Swilling, who delivered the keynote address at this week's 4th National Conference on Global Change in Polokwane, told about 600 delegates that, for the first time in the industrial era, capitalist economies are investing heavily in renewable energy.


"The total annual investment in renewable energy is now nearly $300bn, which is double the total investment in fossil fuels and nuclear energy combined. Investment in renewables has exceeded that of fossil fuels since 2009," he told delegates.


Energy from renewable sources is now cheaper than fossil fuels in 100 countries.


"Between 2009 and 2015 the cost of wind energy dropped by 50% and the cost of solar energy dropped by 80%. Renewable energy, including hydro-energy, will soon meet 20% of the world's energy needs," said Swilling.


Swilling said that, while the global energy revolution has started, much more needs to be done to ensure that the world transitions from an unsustainable way of life. He said while most governments and business sectors accept the scientific consensus that current system is unsustainable, they continue to follow the imperatives of the prevailing economic consensus.


He explained that efforts to combat low economic growth, rising unemployment and worsening inequality cannot be separated from the fact that the era of cheap fossil fuels is over, that soil degradation is causing a decline in fruit production, that wars for resources such as water and productive land are under way, and that natural disasters are increasing in frequency and severity.


However, he said that all national governments relied on the economic consensus that wants to see a "balanced national budget", limiting structural transformation and avoiding interventions that are seen to crowd out the private sector, with prices reflecting the principle of supply and demand.  He added that national economies tended towards equilibrium, but that economic equilibrium did not allow change.


But he was clear that economic change needs to be embraced, as climate change is a reality with devastating consequences.


The National Conference on Global Change offers a unique opportunity for a multi-stakeholder dialogue on topical issues related to global change. It brings representatives of the research and development sector, business, industry, government, and civil society together to share and debate the latest research, technology and strategic solutions to the challenges set out in the global Sustainable Development Goals and South Africa's National Development Plan.


Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubani, said that climate change, extreme poverty and gender inequality were among the many challenges that define the post-Millennium Development Goals era.


"The world is confronted with a number of complex and overwhelming challenges that will require a range of responses. Through the United Nations, the countries of the world have committed to working together under various frameworks to tackle these challenges. Through these multilateral efforts the world has registered significant progress in reducing poverty over the past decades," she said.


Limpopo MEC for Finance, Rob Tooley, welcomed the efforts of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the University of Limpopo and the National Research Foundation (NRF) in addressing the challenges currently facing the world.


"The University of Limpopo is committed to finding solutions for Africa. I believe that conferences of this nature give us a platform to present solutions for Africa and the rest of the world. With science and innovation we can secure a sustainable future for humanity," said Mr Tooley.


"Indeed, for us to find solutions we need to research and innovate. The sustainable solutions we all yearn for depend on our ability and willingness to research and innovate.  It is for this reason that this conference cannot afford to be a mere talk show," he concluded.


The conference, held from 4 to 6 December, was organised jointly by the DST, the NRF, the University of Limpopo and the Limpopo Provincial Government.


The national global change conferences are held biennially under the banner of the Global Change Grand Challenge. The 2018 conference provided a platform for discussing current South African research and innovation initiatives and interventions aligned with the theme "Sustainable futures through science and innovation."  Another objective was to drive the development of the next generation of young scientists by creating a forum for them to present their research and interact with experienced scientists.


The DST and the National Research Foundation have initiated a number of global change programmes, among others the Applied Centre for Climate and Earth Systems Science (ACCESS), the Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme, and the Africa Earth Observatory Network, all of which play an important role in helping address the challenges and seize the opportunities arising from global change.


Rudo Donga, an ACCESS students from the University of Zimbabwe, welcomed the opportunity to be part of the conference.


"I feel confident that I will leave the conference with valuable knowledge. I am looking forward to interacting with professionals in the field of global change and to learn from research work done by other students from other countries," she said


The ACCESS programme includes research, services and training related to a varying and changing environment, including seasonal cycles and anomalies, and their effects on natural systems and people's lives.