/ 21 September 2018

The blueprint for happiness

Cool solution: Singapore’s green canopy has reduced temperatures by 5˚C
Cool solution: Singapore’s green canopy has reduced temperatures by 5?C, cutting the cost of electricity and making the city a more comfortable place to live and work. (Bibikow Walter/Hemis.fr)

We could save R400-trillion in the next decade if we make the world a nicer place to live. That’s R50 000 each.

This could completely change the world. Decisions taken in the next three years — with money that is already in budgets and technology that already exists — could make everyone happy and healthy.

It might seem impossible, but this is the conclusion reached by one of the most comprehensive blueprints ever made for our world. Set up in 2013, the independent Global Commission on the Economy and Climate looks at how countries can develop in a world that is changing.

Their blueprint — the 2018 New Climate Economy Report — was released last week and comes in at more than 200 pages.

Two-hundred pages of fear about the future — and hope, because changing things could be relatively straightforward. All that is required is the political will for the ideas in the report to be translated into action.

This more efficient, healthier and safer world is possible because of infrastructure. Developed countries need to upgrade their infrastructure and developing countries need highways, water systems and cities. The key is in how these are built.

Doing things the way we do them now will cost the world R1.3-quadrillion, with South Africa chipping in a chunk of of the R370-billion it is getting from China.

READ MORE: Extreme heat, wildfires and the cost of climate change

But we could save R400-trillion by doing things more efficiently, and this will reduce the effect of current systems on, for example, people’s health.

All of the plans in the 2018 report have been costed and use technology and ideas that already exist. The only thing that remains is for politicians to think differently.


Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by the middle of this century. That could go horrifically wrong. But the concentration of people and economy is also a giant opportunity.

Smaller, compact and more efficient cities already exist. Barcelona is closing off entire city blocks, turning roads into pedestrian zones. People walk in the street, stop to buy food and talk to neighbours. Children play. Nobody is choking on gases from car exhausts.

Half of Singapore is now covered in a green canopy, dropping temperatures in the city by 5°C. That means residents can walk between the cement buildings in comfort and much less air conditioning is needed indoors.

Compact cities will mean better homes can be built and people will travel less between work and home. Homes and offices will regulate heat and cold better, saving energy and creating more liveable spaces. Doing this on scale will mean cheaper houses, so more people can have a home of their own.

Where transport is needed, cars will fade out in favour of public transport. More than 150 cities already have bus rapid transport systems, such as those in Cape Town and Johannesburg. When these use electricity or hydrogen, the air in cities will be cleaner because carbon emissions will drop.

Johannesburg has already shown how this can be paid for: R1-billion was raised through green bonds for renewable energy, methane capture at landfills and hybrid buses.


Most of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, which warm the planet. Four-million people die each year around the world from outdoor air pollution, including from power plants. Yet a billion people don’t have electricity. And governments spend R4-trillion a year subsidising fossil fuel companies such as mines and power stations.

Renewables are the obvious solution. Solar and wind panels already produce cheaper electricity, without counting the benefit of people not getting sick from air pollution. Now the key is to make smaller electric grids, so that towns and city blocks can produce their own electricity from renewables and sell it to neighbours.

Batteries will last longer, storing energy from the sun and wind. Geysers will use less energy and will operate at different times to lower pressure on the grid. These devices will talk to each other so each one uses the optimum amount of energy.

South Africa’s new energy plan already endorses this approach.


Water is life, yet it is polluted at every imaginable point. In South Africa, raw sewage flows into dams that are then used for drinking water and to irrigate crops. This makes people sick and also means money, and electricity, have to be used to treat the polluted water.

Changing this is about being smart. Water will be treated as a circular system, with each step generating some sort of economic benefit. Sewage will be treated for drinking water and to create fertiliser. Homes and businesses will use recycled water for everything except drinking.

That will mean less water needs to be treated for drinking, which will reduce electricity use and costs.

This smart thinking is being used in many places. Mines in Gauteng treat acidic water and sell it. In Namibia, Windhoek survives be-cause sewage is treated to drinking quality.


Industrialised food production means soil is destroyed and water is polluted. A third of the world’s land is already at the point where it can no longer produce food. The processed foods that are worst for your health are the cheapest. Two-billion people are obese and a billion go hungry each day.

Changing this will mean less intensive use of land. Cattle and sheep will graze on pastures, creating healthier protein. More compost — created by sending less food waste to landfills — will replace fertiliser and so do less damage to soil and all the organisms that live in it.

READ MORE: Cutting out meat and dairy and slashes your carbon footprint

Forests will also be saved, creating more trees to suck in carbon emissions. In the United States alone, conserving indigenous forests means 126 000 people have jobs. With a billion people around the world relying on forests for their livelihood, stopping rapid deforestation will improve many rural livelihoods.


Carbon emissions from industry have to drop by 40% to keep global warming at a reasonable level. This will be done as industry becomes more efficient. South Africa’s energy crisis showed just how quickly this can happen. Industry will do this for its own survival: bottling plants cannot operate if there is no water flowing in rivers and truck companies cannot drive along tar roads that have melted in the heat.

With more money than governments, industry is where innovation will come to the fore.

We live in exciting times.