/ 24 September 2020

We cannot afford incremental action on climate change

Local Companies Doing Little To Lower Carbon Emissions
South Africa is still heading in the wrong direction. We are one of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies and the biggest polluter in Africa.


It can be a relief to have leaders who seem to take climate change seriously. Compared to President Donald Trump in the United States, who denies climate change, South Africa has President Cyril Ramaphosa, who speaks about the urgency of the problem and the need to act. He even dedicates newsletters to it.

Yet, despite encouraging rhetoric from our leaders, South Africa is still heading in the wrong direction. We are one of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies and the biggest polluter in Africa. To make matters worse, our government is planning for a lot more polluting coal, oil and gas.

Young people are fed up with the climate hypocrisy of our leaders. That is why on Friday, September 25 we will be taking to the streets as part of the Global Day of Climate Action. The day was called for by young people who have been striking from school and demanding climate justice before it’s too late.

In the words of young Ugandan climate striker Vanessa Nakate: “We don’t have time to wait until we are old enough to replace the people in power today.  The climate crisis is here, and we have such little time to avoid locking in the worst consequence.”

So little time indeed. 

Studies tell us that the recovery from Covid-19 must be sustainable and led by renewable energy. Otherwise, we will have blown our last opportunity to keep warming from passing the vital threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

Many might celebrate Ramaphosa’s economic recovery plan as a win for climate justice. After all, it promises to revive a renewable energy industry that was stifled in its infancy by the ANC previously. It promises to build out local renewable energy manufacturing capacity too.

It’s long past time we started renewables again, and it is not enough to simply bring on some renewable energy. What matters is the speed, scale, and nature of the transition. What matters is how long we will continue to pollute and make the climate crisis worse.

The climate science has made it clear that we need to rapidly increase the speed of the transition to renewable energy. Yet our energy plan slows down the transition by artificially limiting renewables. By doing so it forces us to accept more polluting and expensive fossil fuels.

Under Ramaphosa, the government has now promised distant action that we will get to net zero emissions by 2050. In the present, however, we are taking actions that will make the climate crisis worse and almost ensure we are not hitting that target even in the long run.

Ramaphosa himself is behind one of the biggest-polluting new projects in South Africa – the proposed special economic zone in Limpopo. It would include a massive new coal power plant and a huge polluting, water hungry-industrial complex – taking place in an area deep in water scarcity.

There is a long list of polluting new projects that we can add to the mix. From liquid fossil gas terminals to new coal mines and powerplants to car-centric urban sprawl to offshore oil and gas drilling to promoting polluting industrial agriculture, the list goes on.

Our biggest future pollution source is the major gas push by Minister Gwede Mantashe and the department of mineral resources and energy (DMRE). They are trying to sell us a gas future as natural and clean, but it is a polluting fossil-energy source.

When you burn fossil gas, it releases carbon dioxide, and when you produce gas, it typically leaks methane – one of the most powerful greenhouse gases. Those leaks can sometimes make fossil gas worse than coal for the climate. The result is that methane levels are at record levels globally.

Our government will not admit that their fossil fuel vision is unsustainable, though. The DMRE recently refused to even meet with community organisers in Newcastle who were asking for a move away from coal. The DMRE claimed that the community’s position goes against the department’s mandate to “sustainably” use our resources.

What the DMRE and the government do not seem to pay any heed to is climate science. The world’s leading scientists have made it abundantly clear that we cannot sustainably expand fossil fuels. We must rapidly move towards renewable energy.

Multiple economic models have made it clear that a renewable energy future is our most affordable, reliable and job-creating energy future. If we ensure a just transition to a more socially owned renewable energy future, we can bring major benefits to the people of South Africa.

We have an abundance of sun, wind and other natural resources that could position us as leaders in the 21st-century zero carbon economy. Instead, we are adding small amounts of renewable energy, while continuing largely on a fossil fuel-dominated, unequal, extractive path.

Last year, Ayakha Melithafa, a young South African climate striker, met with Ramaphosa. He promised her that “no African child would be left behind in the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient, and sustainable society”. He said that this would be ensured “by the Presidential Commission on Climate Change”.

After years of promises, however, the commission is still a body only in name. Meanwhile, in action, we continue on a polluting course. In the words of Melithafa, “There is no point in having a Commission on Climate Change if coal remains at the heart of our economy, if the change is too incremental to address the real urgency of the problem.”

On Friday, in a dozen actions across South Africa, people are standing with Melithafa and other young people demanding a move away from incremental action. We are calling instead for transformative action — what is being called a radical Green New Deal.

We need to invest in a massive programme to overhaul our economy putting environmental and social justice at the heart of our transformation. Doing so promises to put millions of people to work building a better society for all. 

We are in the climate crisis now, with drought, extreme weather, floods, and crippling heat across the world. The science is clear that we need to start transforming our economy now, not in three decades’ time. We need to get to zero emissions as soon as possible.

We can no longer afford the hypocritical incrementalism of our leaders who take us one step forward and two steps back. We need to be going forward only. Otherwise what we leave behind for our young people will be a world ravaged by climate chaos.

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