Is it really the case that ‘polluters pay’ in South Africa

Our natural environment is crying for justice, screaming for perpetrators to be held accountable for clouds of smoke and mountains of plastic on sidewalks, riverbanks and oceans. This sentiment is expressed and emphasised in the  National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998, alluding to the international principle and environmental law that the “polluter pays”, in which perpetrators are to be held responsible and take accountability for any environmental degradation.

More than 75% of South Africa’s primary energy supply comes from coal. The production of electricity makes up the country’s largest portion of carbon emissions. Although measures were put in place to reduce carbon emissions when signing the Paris Climate Agreement (an agreement that was meant to be “legally binding” but, was breached by the former president of the United States in 2017, with no repercussions), a contract that “ensures” that climate change is addressed efficiently). 

In 2016, South Africa moved from the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the World Bank’s findings in 2018, to 12th in 2022, as reported by News24. Other sectors that contribute to South Africa’s emitted carbon per capita are transport, construction (especially cement), mining and other production systems and agriculture. This shows the importance of finding alternative ways of sustainable production across a range of goods.  

In June 2019, the carbon tax was introduced in South Africa.

However, this fails to show the government’s commitment to ensuring the “polluter pays” because, currently, South Africa’s carbon tax stands at R6.66 ($0.42). In contrast, Sweden’s stands at R2 092 ($132) 

The carbon tax rollout was planned to be implemented in three phases, with the first one already extended by three years, ending in 2025. The second phase would commence in 2026, as presented by Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana in his budget speech. The first phase would ensure that “the transitional support measures afforded to companies in the first phase, such as significant tax-free allowance”, will continue. 

This must have come as a relief to energy-intense companies such as Eskom, as this meant that they had dodged a bullet. Households would also enjoy a couple of years of not having electricity price hikes. 

During the second phase, tax-free allowances would fall away, with the carbon tax rate increasing from R144 per ton of carbon (effective from 1 January 2022) to R300 ($20) per ton by 2026. 

From 2026 and beyond, carbon tax hikes will be heftier, ensuring that the county accomplishes its goal that it committed to during the climate change conference (COP26) in November 2021, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

 Along with this commitment, South Africa made a policy development that focused on the country’s carbon tax. On 18 February, the Climate Change bill was introduced as an “effective climate change response and a long-term, just transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy.” 

Over time, carbon budget systems would become mandatory, ensuring that going over the allocated budget, companies will suffer tax penalties.

An approximate amount of R1.3-billion in carbon tax earnings was collected between 1 April 2021 and 30 November 2021. 

Is it enough?

 With  R70bn being paid to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at an interest rate of 1.1%, the R1.3bn is not enough.

Therefore, the redirection of the state’s priorities is required, such as giving reliable electricity access to rural areas, which may prevent illegal electricity connections, with the yearly turnovers received by the state. 

Together with the revenue made by carbon tax earnings, the submitted national determined contributions (NDCs) should help build resilience to adapting to rising temperatures.

However, the seriousness of NDCs is contradicted by the South African government’s exploration of methane-gas expansion, which is highlighted by the court case brought by the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, fighting against gasification expansion,  

The need to hold big corporate businesses accountable could not be more stressed, as leaked documents show that the department of forestry, fisheries, and the environment was planning on advising the country to vote against the Global Plastics Treaty. This was after business interest groups were consulted. 

Are big business interests more important than living in a healthier and greener environment? 

Clearly, as South Africa would capitalise on the plastic pollution crisis through the imports of plastic waste, according to Greenpeace Africa, this is translated and manifested in the statement by the ANC MP and former deputy finance minister, Sfiso Buthelezi, that: “We agree that the environment is constrained, but the finance minister continued to spend on infrastructure, grants and business supports like loan guarantee scheme [to] be responsive to [the] country’s needs.” 

This suggests that although officials are aware of the stress the environment is under, putting polluters under the magnifying glass and holding them accountable is not the main priority. According to the minister of forestry, fisheries and the environmental affairs, Barbara Creecy: “We may not be using a ban. But that doesn’t mean that plastic producers have the latitude to do nothing”. This comes after the United Nations Environment Assembly implemented the first legally binding draft treaty to end plastic pollution. 

Creecy further stated: “The thing I’ve always been worried about is whether we would be able to enforce a ban. We have a few complexities with law enforcement in South Africa. I would rather do a lot of work to persuade a range of sectors to take single-use plastic products off their value chains completely.”

Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations are one of the persuasion measures Creecy referred to, to hold plastic producers financially responsible for their waste. Some of the country’s needs should include ensuring a practical application of legal or policy framework to regulate waste management, through the enforcement and inclusion of the National Environmental Management Act of 1998. 

Second, measures on reducing micro-plastic use in products should be emphasised, while promoting waste minimisation, reuse, recycling and recovery of waste. Measures on increasing single-use plastic bags should be implemented through increasing the plastic bag levy to help reduce unsustainable plastic consumption.

Fines for carbon emissions and plastic pollution are, unfortunately, a necessary nuisance in addressing climate change and pollution.     

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

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Sanele Khakhu
Sanele Khakhu is a master’s candidate in industrial sociology at the University of Johannesburg.

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