Tasneem Essop’s new office is a far cry from the lofty one she occupied until July this year. The stark, ground-floor room at World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Stellenbosch premises needs some stationery and furniture.
A dinky laptop, a telephone and a few scattered pages look lost on the otherwise bare L-shaped desk. A second chair is rustled up from an adjacent office.
To be fair, this is only 24 hours after Essop announced that she was taking up the post of WWF’s chief African lobbyist with the NGO’s Global Climate Deal Network.
Essop’s shift from provincial politics to civil society activist comes after a four-year spell as Western Cape minister for environment, development planning and economic development and 14 years in active politics in the ANC. She resigned following the ousting of Ebrahim Rasool as ANC premier. She admits that had she not jumped, she would have been pushed.
In spite of the shift climate change and poverty remain on Essop’s agenda. Under her tenure, the ministry produced the Western Cape Climate Change Response Strategy and Action Plan — the first structured framework on the African continent designed to assist provincial government in tackling climate change.
“I keep saying climate change is a poverty issue,” she says, from behind her new desk. “The IPCC [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] findings are clear. It is unambiguous. The most vulnerable to climate change are the poor. Not just poor nations, but poor people in general, in developed and developing countries. The most vulnerable [of these] are women and children.”
The objective of the strategy — due for approval by the provincial Cabinet before the end of the year — provides the province with ways of adapting to shifting climatic conditions and begin cutting back on emissions.
Adaptation refers to “climate-proofing” people’s environments, she says, particularly for the poor who live in degraded environments, or are dependent on rural spaces for their livelihoods.
“It’s about quality of life. Adaptation is the key area of intervention.”
Renewable energy, a key focus of the strategy’s drive, is not just about moving to a low-carbon economy, but is also about improving the lot of the poor. “Renewable energy is an affordable form of energy for the poor, if it is subsidised.”
Now Essop’s focus is on the WWF agenda, lobbying alongside other NGOs ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled for Copenhagen late in 2009.
Dr Morné du Plessis, chief executive of WWF South Africa, says the goal is to secure a binding multilateral agreement that would “set the world on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050”.
“Copenhagen is a critical conference, we have to have a post-Kyoto [Protocol] deal. It has to include commitments around cutting emissions, particularly the big emitters,” says Essop,
The Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 182 countries since 1997, is the first effort to cap global greenhouse gas emissions by setting firm reduction targets. The first commitment period operates between 2008 and 2012, but is already regarded as a failure since the biggest greenhouse gas emitters have not ratified the agreement.
Meanwhile the Western Cape is on track to unveil its own climate change response. Mark Gordon, strategic environmental management director in Essop’s former department, confirmed that the action plan had been submitted to the provincial Cabinet.
“A Cabinet work stream has been established to implement the action plan and it has been in operation for about a year now. It is expected to endorse the strategy within the next two to three months,” he said. Some aspects of the programme are already up and running, “since they form part of departmental strategic budgets for the current financial year”.
But with her exit from government, Essop will not be involved in the implementation of the strategy. Does this mean politics is over for the former provincial minister or will she reconsider the political arena once the current political climate has changed?
“I don’t think so. It’s a part of my life that is past now.”