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New climate commission offers hope


Akhona Xotyeni is right to link the Covid-19 crisis with the climate change crisis. Both are symptoms of underlying systemic vulnerability; pandemics and climate change threaten human life on Earth in fundamental ways.

And I agree that South Africa seems to lack the ability to join these dots and invariably apparently does not have the “strategic foresight” to take the necessary longer-term planning steps needed to anticipate system-level shocks and threats.

For South Africa, and humanity, 2021 presents a fork-in-the-road opportunity to “reset” its economic paradigm — because beneath it all, it is our approach to the management of economic resources that, properly diagnosed, is the underlying cause of the system-level shocks.

In turn, this means that our response to climate change, as much as to pandemics, are determined by political and ideological choices.

This should be the first order of business for the newly-appointed Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Commission (P4C), which is an important development: to develop a “strategic foresight” approach to diagnosing the climate change threat and the options for responding with the necessary urgency and precision.

Its second priority should be to recognise the politics of climate change and to begin the necessary task of helping the public to understand the importance of climate change to their individual and collective futures.

Thus far, climate change has not featured in the election manifestos of parties; votes are apparently neither won nor lost on the back of the positions adopted by political parties, despite the harmful effect that climate change has on people’s lives.

Because the P4C has members drawn from many sectors, it has the potential to present a credible rallying call for society, and to draw a wider set of social actors into the debate.

Because of this, it also has the potential to be the platform for a multistakeholder process to lead the “just” energy transition — potentially its most important contribution. The government is clearly stuck, unable to untangle the intense vested interests in the fossil fuel economy and navigate a very tricky political economy.

Unless South Africa finds a way to move rapidly away from a carbon-heavy economy, it will not only lag globally and fail to meet its international obligations, but its economy will be “stranded”, with dire long-term consequences.

Last, it must define a climate finance strategy — especially one that links the economic recovery from Covid-19 with the need for climate action (as argued for by a recent United Nations-commissioned report from an expert group that I co-chaired). There are significant pools of international climate finance that could be tapped and global funds such as the Green Climate Fund would be eager to support a South African energy transition, if only it could get its act together.

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 Calland
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a founding partner of the Paternoster Group.

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