A green economy grows jobs

Insisting on a right of reply can sometimes be a bad move. Objecting to an article is fine, provided the better option is not keeping that right in a deep pocket.

Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa took exception to Richard Worthington’s article Too much wiggle room on emissions, a critique of the draft proposals the government intended submitting at COP21, the universally accepted make-or-break climate change conference, in Paris, at the end of this year. Her right of reply, “We are making headway towards an energy-efficient economy” (September 18) overflows with “wiggle room”.

The main theme of her rejoinder is the need to find the right balance between protecting humanity from climate change – the implicit assumption being that this means major economic restraint – and advancing the urgent economic needs of most South Africans, which requires the opposite condition of rapid economic growth.

In her words: “South Africa is a developing country and will continue to push for space to develop while transitioning to a lower carbon and climate-resilient economy and society. It is in our national interest to consider our developmental requirements and our obligations to reduce poverty, unemployment and inequality.”

There are at least four objections to these two short sentences.

First, South Africa’s transition is in the opposite direction to what the minister wants us to believe. Rather than a lower carbon economy, our government’s commitment is full steam ahead to an even more coal-based economy. Even without Kusile and Medupi – both of which will be among the largest coal-fired power stations in the world – we are already notorious for being one of the world’s top carbon polluters. And to this must be added the 2 500 megawatt of new coal generation capacity mandated by Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Coal remains firmly enthroned as resource king, notwithstanding the carbon it belches out in royal amounts.

Second, the “developmental space” Molewa seeks to defend is far less straightforward than might appear. It is space for South Africa to become like the developed world. Left unsaid is that the developed world, which is serving as our model, is mainly responsible for climate change. It is a world that would require the resources of many Earths and is therefore a practical impossibility.

Third, the economic development supposedly required to “reduce poverty, unemployment and inequality” is precisely the same economy responsible not only for the existence of “poverty, unemployment and inequality” but also for the growth of these problems since 1994.

Moreover, these conditions are far from being uniquely South African problems. They are characteristic of all the so-called developing countries, despite their detailed differences of history and location. More telling still is that they are characteristic of the developed world on which we model ourselves.

This means we don’t have to confront the awful dilemma of having to choose between combating climate change and the needs of the poor and unemployed. No trade-off is required; there is no either/or because climate change, poverty, unemployment and inequality are all causally linked. Tackling one feature unavoidably means addressing all the others. This makes the task both much more difficult and significantly easier to begin.

This brings us to the fourth and final point; another way of expressing the preceding paragraph is that a different type of economic development is not only consistent with addressing climate change but also simultaneously creates decent jobs – in large numbers. Job creation, in turn, eases poverty. That is to say, minimising carbon emissions is consistent with maximising jobs.

This win-win economic development includes steps such as the following.

The state, acting for once consistently with what it says about the singular importance of climate change – rather than opting out of the provision of renewable energy and handing that function over to a profit-maximising private sector, for which climate change is at best little more than a golden business opportunity – immediately takes direct and primary responsibility for, among other things, ensuring that:

  • All township houses (not shacks) are retrofitted with solar water heaters and rainwater harvesting capabilities;
  • All public buildings are similarly fitted with the additional installation of rooftop photovoltaic (PV) units for the direct generation of electricity, whether or not each building has its own rooftop supply; and
  • All municipalities explore the feasibility of renewable energy for decentralised power generation and supply, and proceed, where appropriate, to the rapid implementation of the research findings.

Just these three measures alone would create a large number of various jobs. They would create demand large enough to sustain a local renewable energy industry, which, in turn, would create still more jobs.

The current Volkswagen scandal draws attention to the heavy contribution of private cars to both climate change and what happens when climate change is abused as no more than a business opportunity to promote diesel engines.

But taking climate change seriously demands getting private cars, taxis, lorries and trucks off the roads. The alternative is an integrated public transport system – based on buses, coaches and rail – that is efficient, cheap and safe, and greatly extends the coverage of what now passes for public transport.

Such a system would not only provide proper mobility to a large number of people but would also stimulate the creation of local industries and jobs.

Agriculture, health, waste, water and sanitation are other critical sectors when it comes to tackling climate change. Climate-friendly alternatives are readily available in each case. They additionally all have the advantage of being labour-intensive.

Further good news is that finance is not an insurmountable impediment. We sometimes choose to forget that South Africa is a very rich country.

Some of the wealth that could be available for tackling an issue that affects every single South African and threatens the very survival of future generations includes:

  • R80-billion a year that is being lost to South Africa as a result of illegal money flows;
  • R1.35-trillion that sits in corporate cash balances as of December 2014;
  • R700-billion that is estimated to have been lost to corruption; and
  • R1.8-trillion sitting with the Public Investment Corporation.

Only political will keeps us from implementing the changes demanded by climate change. Our failure to heed what is required by science condemns us to a known future: a long suicide.

Dr Jeff Rudin is a research associate at the Alternative Information and Development Centre

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