By Isobel Frye
At the time of writing, more than 445 deaths have been recorded in the rains and floods in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, with scores more people missing.
The devastation wrought by the floods and the loss of livelihoods is tragic, coming less than a year after the losses from the July 2021 protest violence.
People and enterprises are still struggling to come to terms with the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown. The continued load shedding by the electricity monopoly, Eskom, further contributes to a devastating existence for many, with the future just an anxious and bleak dystopia.
While we have no control over the force of the new patterns of nature arising from climate change, we can and must recognise them for what they are. There are ways we can build back for the future, using new technologies and know-how, and creating jobs in transition industries.
We can emerge stronger, and it seems that South Africa is ahead of many other countries in doing this. The storms have underscored the impact of inequalities and poverty.
Millions of people are having to start again to rebuild without the benefit of insurance or safety nets. In an interview with a news anchor last weekend, I was asked if I thought the food vouchers of between R700 and R1 200 were an appropriate response to the damage.
What is appropriate in these circumstances? I replied that while we need to look at maximising humanitarian responses with food and shelter, clothes and medication, and cash grants to enable people to rebuild their lives, it was vital that we were also doing the hard work of mitigation and adaptation to build greater resilience for the next time.
Just this week the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a key report, “Impacts Adaptation and Vulnerability and Climate Change”.
The report is part of the sixth Assessment Report (AR) cycle of the IPCC’s global stocktaking on countries’ progress in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and just transitioning from fossil fuel dependency.
The main development in this AR process has been the huge amount of work that has gone into understanding mitigation and adaptation possibilities. Experts have put together a variety of detailed models of interventions and outcomes for countries, so that governments have the information about options, and also access to a large pool of adaptation funds.
The reports and the work done are a veritable treasure trove of innovation and excellence. The take-home headline of the reports is that countries need to shift in thinking about adaptation and mitigation.
Previously, these have been seen as add-ons to national development trajectories. What the scenarios demonstrate in black and white is that for the sake of our survival, development pathways need to be built on adaptive foundations.
Growth and development plans need, at their core, to be implementation plans of mitigation. And the scenarios provide the understanding of how new decent jobs can be created as factories repurpose and reopen to provide new vehicles and appliances, capturing renewable energy and how land use can be changed to localised food production.
Failure to do so, according to the AR report, will profoundly deepen inequalities between and within countries. In turn, the growth of inequality will lead to higher poverty, lower GDP growth, and greater political and social instability, all while intemperate weather patterns render us, victims, of a hostile planet.
The urgent need for urban planning to catch up in South African to dismantle apartheid planning provides an advantage over better-established towns and cities.
We can no longer linger in tackling apartheid spatial and land use planning head-on. By ensuring people-centred development of housing with new industrial development zones built where people live, localised education and training centres with new tech and freely available wi-fi, leisure spaces with green zones for carbon uptake and localised allotments and roof gardens in urban spaces for food production, we will be able to reduce transport costs and emissions.
But real change has to happen, and it will be frightening for many. If we consider the coal mines of Mpumalanga, closing the coal mines will have a direct impact on low-skilled jobs. The unemployment rate in Mpumalanga is 52%.
Tourism, another key source of income and jobs in the province, will also be affected by the planned punitive penalties to be raised on long-haul leisure transport. This is why the expert-derived scenario blueprints of the IPCC are so critical.
And the good news is that South Africa is working hard on domesticating this knowledge. President Cyril Ramaphosa established a Presidential Climate Commission in December 2020, and this is a commission that appears to work.
One of its main briefs is to “facilitate dialogue between social partners … defining the type of society we want to achieve, and detailed pathways for how to get there”.
While this sounds a lot like another dreaded talk shop, the commission has started work on Mpumalanga futures, noting options such as an industrialisation strategy focusing on renewable energy and clean technology manufacturing.
The commission points to the Sasol Secunda pilot project as evidence that Mpumalanga could become a hub for a future hydrogen economy. Future innovations can be exciting, not intimidating if planned with creativity and an inclusive vision.
1. Energy: South Africa can generate as much as 75% of its energy needs through solar and wind renewable energy. Globally the unit costs of solar energy fell by 85% in the decade since 2010.
2. Transport and freight: Migrating the national transport network to electrified trains will grow jobs the length and breadth of the country along the train networks, moving goods and people off the roads and onto clean and safe tracks.
3. The reconstruction of communities, towns and cities is an urgent priority.
4. Recycling and reusing as part of a more circular economy: Sadly, most cities have failed to embrace and support the self-organised waste-pickers and informal recycle workers that wake up before dawn to sort waste at the source. The sector must be recognised and supported, and we can design and manufacture fit-for-purpose waste-picker vehicles in our failing factories, creating decent jobs.
5. New jobs: All the adaptative plans require new appliances and equipment. Importing goods will be affected by the prohibitive taxation on carbon footprints. South Africa can start to grow its import substitution capacity and develop specialised hubs of technology and production.
6. Providing sufficient income for people affected by the transition is another reason for the rolling out of a decent universal basic income grant (BIG): A BIG will provide an alternative link to income from the traditional workplace that is first, tenuous and second, having to change, such as the coal mines and all the secondary and tertiary jobs that are built on that edifice.
A BIG will not provide sufficient levels of income, but it can provide a necessary social protection floor, on which additional livelihoods can be built. South Africa is one of only 31 countries that has submitted a low-energy development strategy.
It takes courage to do something new because doing nothing is less intimidating than change. But history will judge whether we cared enough for our country’s future to reshape it to the core, today.
* Frye is the Director of the Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute