Johannesburg - South Africans are increasingly inundated with the “very real bad news” about the impacts of climate change and water and biodiversity losses yet the country’s political responses are nowhere near comprehensive enough.
“The mantra of the urgent need for ‘transformational’ change is coming through increasingly strongly at every level of scientific analysis and reporting,” remarks Professor Nick King, an environmental futurist, global change analyst and strategist.
He is referring to recent landmark assessments by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science- Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
But this doesn’t feature on the political radar in South Africa. “All politicians talk about is minuscule, incremental change, and not a 180º change of direction, but a slightly altered course, which means, in Titanic terms, we’ll still hit the iceberg!
“We appear to think it’s enough to try to accommodate the changes we’ve seen so far, rather than proactively seeking alternative development trajectories which will put us on a course to avoid the looming iceberg - and restore optimal biosphere functionality.
“With so much momentum in the current economic system trajectory, especially in South Africa with our reliance on coal, only a dramatic shift in policy now will enable the big enough change of course required.”
On September 23, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will convene the UN’s Global Climate Action Summit - he has called on world leaders to come to New York with “clear, concrete, and ambitious” plans to address the worsening climate emergency.
Global climate strikes are planned for September 20 to 27.
Guterres has called for no new coal-fired power plants to be constructed from next year and has urged a “transition from the grey to the green economy that is just and leaves no one behind”.
But South Africa still lacks the vision and comprehension of the urgency of the climate crisis, says Greenpeace Africa. “The fact that the government does not have a semblance of a just transition plan indicates how seriously the state takes the transition - or doesn’t.”
In March, the World Economic Forum ranked South Africa second last - 114 out of 115 economies - in its energy transition preparedness index.
In June, Climate Action Tracker, which tracks the emission commitments and actions of countries, rated South Africa’s as “highly insufficient”.
“We’re not seeing any sufficient level of urgency from government commensurate to the extent and scale of the climate crisis in SA,” says Nicole Loser, an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights. There are a number of stumbling blocks, she says, citing how the process of adopting rigorous climate change legislation has been stalled for over a year.
The Climate Change Bill is “nowhere to be seen” since being published for comment in June last year, and needs “substantial amendments to have any hope of sufficiently regulating climate change, in alignment with the Constitution”.
But Loser says perhaps the biggest stumbling block is that “we continue to see conflicting government decisions being made, which would render any climate mitigation efforts pointless”. It is determined to proceed with new coal-fired power stations, mines and other fossil fuel infrastructure “at a time when these projects are not needed and the urgency to reduce South Africa’s reliance on fossil fuels has never been more apparent.
“Despite the clear signal from Guterres that there can be no new coal plants after 2020, the government plans to proceed with the building of coal dependent power producers (Thabametsi and Khanyisa), an industrial development project in Limpopo which will be accompanied by an enormous, 3300MW coal-fired power station, the remaining units of the Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations (already massively over budget and time), a number of new coal mines, and coal development infrastructure projects such as the Mokolo Crocodile water augmentation project pipeline and a Transnet rail project intended to support plans to further develop coal in the Waterberg.”
Far too little consideration is being given to the “astronomic” climate change costs facing South Africa.
“The droughts, floods and fires over the last few years have cost South Africa billions. Modelling projections estimate the likelihood of these increasing in frequency and intensity will only increase," Loser says.
“When the enormous external costs of mining and burning coal for the climate, health and the environment are taken into consideration, it’s clear the exploitation of coal brings no economic benefit to the country, particularly as cheaper and feasible energy alternatives exist which do not have these same impacts.”
But the state continues to provide “leniency” to Eskom and Sasol, South AfricaA’s two largest single-source greenhouse gas emitters, in meeting legal air pollution standards.
“In addition to causing unacceptable levels of air pollution, they’re allowed to continue operating despite the devastating contribution they’re making to climate change. Instead, they should be developing plans to accelerate the retirement of these polluting facilities, and leading the way in producing a transparent and fair transition plan, particularly for the workers who will be impacted.”
The departments of Economic Development and Environment, Forestry and Fisheries are leading a process to develop plans for sectors vulnerable to job losses from climate change, which is “a very important step in the just transition process”.
“But much more needs to be done at all levels of government, and much sooner, to ensure South Africa is sufficiently prepared for the transition, which is under way,” she says.
Environmental researcher Dr Neil Overy says the government has moved at a “glacial” pace towards the just energy transition because, “like all previous SA governments, it is largely ‘captured’ by the mining lobby”.
“This means any push to transition away from coal towards renewables is met with concerted resistance, both from within the coal industry and from its apologists within the government.”
Breaking this historical link is an “urgent necessity if we are even to begin to develop the kind of leadership and political will necessary to meaningfully address climate change”.
Organised labour cannot be expected to support a transition unless workers and communities around coal mines and power plants are protected, he says. “This is not an unreasonable demand, and is being accommodated, with varying degrees of success, throughout the world where coal mines and coal-fired power stations are closing down.”
The government “appears not to understand” that renewable energy technologies employ about five times as many people as coal-fired energy for electricity, King argues, “allowing some 100000 coal jobs to prevent half a million jobs in the renewable energy sector being deployed”.
Renewable energy technologies are readily available. “A clear strategic plan of shuttering Eskom’s ageing and horribly polluting coal-fired power station fleet, pensioning coal workers who wish it, retraining those who don’t, converting coal towns into renewable energy training and manufacturing centres and making South Africa a leader in this field is not that difficult a task, with the vast intellectual resources the country has.
“Yet it would seem we have little political will to wean ourselves off the current system and create our own version of a ‘Green New Deal’, despite the fact that study after study shows this is the least costly route to keeping our lights on.”
Environmental justice activist Makoma Lekalakala, of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, says the government should show leadership by not authorising new coal mines and power stations and increase its support and investments for decentralised renewable energy technologies projects. “We’ve been talking for too long. It’s now time for concrete action.”
Tasneem Essop, of the National Planning Commission (NPC), says South Africa has to step up with more ambitious commitments at the upcoming UN summit.
“We remain in the top 20 list of high-emitting countries in the world, but we’re also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We’ve witnessed this with the very serious droughts in many parts of our country... Our actions on climate change should be integrally connected to addressing our triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.”
South Africa needs to have a plan for phasing out coal, and “this needs to happen through a just transition”.
The NPC, she says, has just completed a 16-month social partner dialogue process on the vision and pathways for a just transition, with young people, labour and the energy-intensive users group, among others.“These dialogues culminated in a concluding conference of representatives of social partners (government, business, labour and civil society) where consensus was reached on two important issues.
“The first being, setting a vision for achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the second, to phase out coal through robust, just transition planning.”
This work will be taken further at a summit on the just transition, planned for next month. “The intention is to use the outcome as the basis for a social partner-driven process to negotiate a social compact on the just transition in South Africa.”