Global climate action is more vital than ever


South Africa could and should do better, at home and abroad, if we take seriously the government’s policy on climate change. Although we are spoilt for opportunities for climate-resilient development and job creation, the notion of a just transition is increasingly invoked by fossil fuel companies and unions to resist change.

A decade ago we were a year into developing a comprehensive policy Green Paper, having championed the binding international commitments at the fraught Copenhagen Conference of Parties (COP) the previous December. Our application to host the following year’s annual negotiations — COP17 — in Durban had been accepted. The potential of renewable energy was finally being taken seriously and a carbon tax was being tabled by the treasury.

Today, it seems South Africa has given up on sustainable energy: little of the National Climate Change Response Policy (2011) has been implemented and a nascent renewable energy industry has almost been scuppered because our energy system remains captive to fossil fuel interests. With so little progress there’s no point insisting on the promised five-year review of the policy. 

The Mitigation System — regulatory instruments to drive emissions reduction and avoidance — was intended to be in place within three years. Key stakeholders (as the government refers to those it feels most compelled to consult, and often serves as a euphemism for major polluters) however, are still contesting the design of essential elements of the system mandated by Cabinet nine years ago.

What South Africa has so far put forward as our nationally determined contribution to global efforts to curtail the planetary heating that is accelerating climate volatility, rendering a majority of humanity increasingly vulnerable, is so outdated as to be meaningless. Derived from analysis that preceded the drafting of policy, our emissions mitigation pledge cannot be reconciled with the objectives of the Paris Agreement we signed on to in 2015, but it is still used as the benchmark for development planning.

This severely undermines our potential to negotiate with moral conviction and influence details of a multilateral system that is equitable and effective. Humanity will not avert the climate catastrophe without international co-operation and South Africa is a pivotal country, regardless of how artfully we seek to underplay both our contribution to the problem and our opportunities for truly sustainable development.

An enduring reluctance to set objectives and act decisively, informed by the latest science, is reflected in wide-ranging appeals for policy certainty as a basis for mobilising investment. Without defining our desired outcomes for the management of our greenhouse gas emissions, we are left without a foundation for securing concessionary finance based on enhanced mitigation ambition — the prospect of which was heralded by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the United Nations last September.

The UN General Assembly is convening virtually this year, as are the various G20 ministerial meetings this month. The high-level UN climate segment is much smaller, but young people are again mobilising to convince governments that they deserve a survival strategy. Fridays for Future have called for a global day of action on September 25 and actions in South Africa are being planned, observant of safety protocols.

Resilience, a central concept in responding to climate change, is gaining new currency in the Covid-19 pandemic and, with the socioeconomic consequences of governments’ measures to contain the novel coronavirus,  has highlighted the multiple vulnerabilities in society. The pandemic has also exposed the gender dimensions of vulnerability, not just for individuals but as a dimension of class: the gendered distribution of unpaid work and exposure to health risks underlying calls to recognise and develop the purple economy — a gender-egalitarian economic system.

Propositions for transformational change that until recently have been treated as untenable, when advocated to address climate change and other gradual natural disasters, can no longer be dismissed as unrealistic in the context of on-going interventions to address the collapse of economic growth — still our primary preoccupation despite the escalation of immediate deprivation. A microscopic natural phenomenon has prompted some overdue questioning of our economic system and its underpinning assumptions, or orthodox theory, though this has not (yet) threatened the hegemony epitomised by ratings agencies and the regressive prioritisation of gross domestic product. 

Resilience must surely be a key objective in all efforts for economic recovery, and is also an appropriate objective for investment risk assessment. Reducing the vulnerability of people, our productive systems and the economic relationships that support them, requires that we address inequality. Hence the need for transformational change, such as using well-being indicators rather than GDP “growth” as a measure of progress, introducing a universal income grant and planning to phase out coal combustion.

South Africa continues to present itself as a progressive participant in climate change negotiations — with sincere efforts by some of our representatives, but with ever-dwindling credibility. Perhaps a growing recognition of how inequality constitutes a vulnerability in our economy, and how this is compounded by disruption of natural systems, will help to get the government as a whole to embrace our existing policy, with implementation calibrated to the current reality.

This month the cabinet approved a document called South Africa’s Low-Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) 2050, something we promised under the Paris Agreement. But in the absence of an explicit mandate to align with the global goal to avoid average warming above 1.5 degrees C, the LEDS is basically a compendium of what has been formally endorsed by the government to date — incremental measures to restrain the growth of our emissions, without articulating any overarching strategy for resilient development.

This makes the process to update our nationally determined contribution, as international pledges are called, the only game in South Africa for securing a meaningful commitment to start reducing emissions. It was supposed to be submitted this year, but in June, when Covid-19 resulted in COP26 being postponed to November 2021 — Barbara Creecy, the minister of forestry, fisheries and environment affairs, promised a robust and consultative process, drawing on contemporary analysis, to spell out our intended emissions pathway to 2030.

The Cabinet also approved a Climate Change Bill for deliberation in the National Economic Development and Labour Council, to be followed by submission to Parliament, but this just sets out the architecture and institutional arrangements for a climate change response — the how, rather than what is to be achieved. Important as this is, it will be contested in parallel with the process to enhance our nationally determined contribution, which requires strategic choices to be made by mid-2021 — choices that could make or break our children’s future.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Richard Worthington
Richard Worthington has worked in the environmental non-governmental sector since 1996. He recently joined the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Johannesburg office, as a project manager on climate and energy policies.

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