SA must act urgently to exit group of climate-change pariahs

This piece originally appeared in the Business Day on 8th April 2019. The original article can be accessed here.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from October 2018 states the world only has until 2030 to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C over pre-industrial levels. To meet this target, global carbon emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030, before being reduced to zero by 2050.

Debra Roberts, the co-chair of IPCC research into the impacts of climate warming, has stated that “the next few years are probably the most important in our history”.

Despite this assertion, Climate Action Tracker, an organisation that “quantifies and evaluates climate change mitigation commitments and assesses whether countries are on track to meeting those” states that SA’s climate commitments are “highly insufficient”.

Climate Tracker Action characterises “highly insufficient” commitments as those that will lead to global warming of 3°C-4°C if pursued globally (it is predicted that warming will be twice the global average in sub-Saharan Africa, so 6°C-8°C).

SA is far from being alone in the “highly insufficient” category, sharing this dubious honour with China, South Korea and Japan, among others. And let’s not forget those in the “critically insufficient” category such as the US and Russia. Clearly the world needs to do much more to avoid catastrophic climate change. And that includes being cognisant of the political dimensions of “climate justice”.

In SA the critical conversation about transitioning away from fossil fuels has finally entered the mainstream, as witnessed by the SABC’s recent The Big Debate on energy.

The nature of the transition debate that has taken place in the country reveals just how difficult the shift is likely to be.

While coal mining interests are doing all they can to thwart the transition and are at times finding strange bedfellows with unions worried about job losses, environmental non-governmental organisations are under attack from unions who feel they are unconcerned with job losses. Meanwhile, false claims are being made about the long-term costs of renewables, the expansion of renewable energy is being resisted by some who argue that it represents the creeping privatisation of Eskom, and unions as well as environmental groups oppose the current independent power producer (IPP) model for renewables on the basis that while it may result in an energy transition, it will not be a just one. The spectre of nuclear power is also re-emerging, and not just from the Zuma camp.

These polarising debates are taking place in a government policy vacuum regarding what a just transition actually looks like. While the National Planning Commission did undertake a number of stakeholder dialogues in 2018 under the rubric of “Pathways for a just transition”, the lack of funding and publicity for this initiative clearly illustrates that it is not a primary concern of government.

While it is encouraging that President Cyril Ramaphosa mentioned the need for a just transition in his recent state of the nation address, the government has yet to articulate any policies or plans to realise this transition. It is within this policy vacuum that the coal lobby can stoke fears and unions can make entirely legitimate claims about job losses.

It is absolutely critical that it be governments that take action, because it is clear that despite the claims of the so-called green economy, capitalist relations and ‘the market’ are incapable of offering a solution to climate change.

It is unsurprising then that the World Economic Forum recently ranked SA 114th out of 115 nations assessed for their readiness for an energy transition away from fossil fuels.

It is critical that it be governments that take action, because it is clear that despite the claims of the so-called green economy, capitalist relations and “the market” are incapable of offering a solution to climate change.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with more than 140 officials, policy makers and civil society leaders from the US, Brazil, South Korea, the UK, Sweden, China, Cuba and Bolivia, Karen Bell from the University of Bristol says there is “an apparent propensity for capitalist processes to exacerbate, rather than reduce, environmental problems and inequities though the pursuit of relentless economic growth and profit accumulation”. As Audre Lorde famously remarked, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

But what does this mean for governments facing energy transitions and environmental crises more generally? It means governments must take a far more dynamic and interventionist role in shaping economic and social responses to climate change. And here is where the danger of SA’s glacial progress towards a just transition lies. The more the government drags its feet, the more urgent the issues become.

Bill McKibben, co-founder of global environmental movement 350.org, has said the only hope for humanity is for governments to mobilise like they did during World War 2. Then, it was governments, not the private sector, that took the initiative. In the US no fewer than 162 new government agencies were established, such as the War Production Board, many with executive powers, and private manufacturers were compelled by law to take government contracts.

In the field of labour, working hours were increased, the right to strike curtailed and female labour tapped on a colossal scale, while enormous skills-training programmes were initiated by the government. All of this was funded by a significant expansion in tax revenue and borrowing — income tax was increased for the rich, while indirect taxes were increased on luxury goods. In addition, by the end of the war Americans owned more than $2-trillion (in 2019 prices) in war bonds.

Is this what we want in SA? Do we want the economy to be placed on a similar war footing? Do we want the executive arm of the government riding roughshod over the legislative arm, as was the case during World War 2? What dangers would this represent in an era of state capture? Do we want the hard-won gains of labour unravelled? Do we want the SA state to become even more indebted? Surely not. Surely it would be better to start acting in a meaningful way now?

To avoid these risks what we need is decisive leadership and action from the government. The SA state must play a defining role in the fight against climate change, and we as South Africans must demand that it does.

There must be no more prevaricating, no more delusional faith in the “green economy”.

Plans for new coal must be immediately scrapped and, as a critical starting point, realisable plans must be drawn up in partnership with unions and civil society to ensure a just transition takes place in SA sooner rather than later.

Time is seriously running out.

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