Students tend to a green garden patch full of lettuce.
Students at Takheleni Primary School tend to their school vegetable garden.

Beyond Climate Change Mitigation: Reflections on the USAID South Africa Low Emissions Development Program

How Low Emissions Development Initiatives Can Support Healthy Ecosystems, Communities, and Livelihoods
By Peter Nash

While climate mitigation and support for the Government of South Africa’s green growth agenda were central to the conception of USAID South Africa Low Emissions Development Program (SA-LED), the diversity of technical assistance the Program provided and results achieved went far beyond reducing GHG emissions. Inspired by Earth Day 2021’s focus on restoring the world’s ecosystems, I would like to offer a few reflections from SA-LED that demonstrate how low emissions development (LED) initiatives can provide a variety of benefits, including that directly support healthy ecosystems, communities, and livelihoods.

Overall, across the 31 LED projects SA-LED supported, the Program established that understanding and quantifying benefits beyond GHG emission reductions is essential for policy makers and municipal planners to promote, justify, and finance LED projects. As discussed in SA-LED’s How-to Guide on Multiple Benefits Framework for LED Projects, the Program focused on environmental impacts (e.g., water use, GHG emissions, waste management, and land use change) social impacts (e.g., employment, training/empowerment of staff, livelihood enhancement), and social redress/community resilience (e.g., redressing past social and economic injustices, integration into municipal development planning) of LED initiatives.

For example, SA-LED supported several LED initiatives related to wastewater treatment and waste management, and as discussed in my previous blog on “The Multiple Benefits of Turning Waste to Energy,” a variety of benefits beyond GHG emission reductions can be realized. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants use anaerobic digestion of organic waste to meet all or a portion of a wastewater treatment plant’s energy needs while simultaneously protecting local water supply systems, ecosystems, and communities from harmful pathogens, particulates, and nutrients. And by characterizing waste streams and using a waste management decision support tool, municipalities can divert waste from landfills while creating jobs, protecting the environment from hazardous organic waste (such as abattoir waste), and generating renewable energy.

Also in the area of anaerobic digestion and waste management, through a pilot project that installed micro-biogas digesters in three primary schools in Mpumalanga Province, SA-LED demonstrated the potential of micro-biogas systems to offer a series of interconnected benefits beyond reducing GHG emissions by diverting organic waste from landfills (see biogas in schools video and case study). Overall, the systems – inclusive of a vegetable garden, a rainwater harvesting system, and a micro-biogas digester – complement students’ classroom learning with practical knowledge and skills on nutrition, anaerobic digestion, and waste management while demonstrating how the technology can contribute to healthier environments and communities. Moreover, the systems provide a renewable energy source that is produced on school grounds (saving schools money on energy costs), a fertilizer source (from the biogas “slurry” – the liquid bioproduct of the biogas) for school gardens, and employment opportunities for installation and maintenance of the systems. Following the success of the three pilot schools, SA-LED engaged the Eastern Cape Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs, and Tourism to support the roll out of biogas digesters in 33 schools across the Province.

Additionally, while the main drivers of several municipalities' pursuit of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology was to reduce GHG emissions and produce renewable energy to power municipal infrastructure, the location of the planned solar PV systems often offered direct environmental and community benefits. For example, by installing solar PV on rooftop surfaces of large municipal buildings such as civic centers, beyond generating two megawatts of renewable energy and reducing carbon emissions by 1,800 metric tons by 2030, the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality will avoid developing undisturbed land and/or leave land for other uses needed by the municipality or community. Moreover, as with other LED technologies, installation, maintenance, and cleaning of solar PV systems create jobs.

To learn more about the breadth of technical assistance SA-LED provided to provinces and municipalities, the Program’s Final Report, Lessons Learned Report, as well as numerous resources and tools that can be applied to achieve a variety of environmental and social benefits, please visit SA-LED’s Climatelinks page.

Strategic Objective
Integration, Mitigation
Carbon, Emissions, Low Emission Development, Clean Energy, Infrastructure, Land Use, Mitigation, Urban, Water and Sanitation

Peter Nash

Peter Nash is an international development leadership and management specialist with more than 12 years of experience, including implementing and providing administrative, financial, and operations support for USAID-funded programs in east and southern Africa. He is currently a director in Chemonics’ East and Southern Africa Division. His technical expertise includes natural resource management, climate change adaptation and mitigation, youth development, and environmental education. Mr. Nash holds a M.S. from Colorado State University in human dimensions of natural resources and a B.A. from Connecticut College in environmental studies and anthropology.

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