/ 3 July 2024

I’m focusing on the just transition, says new environment minister Dion George

Dion George
New Environment Minister Dion George. (OJ Koloti, Gallo Images)

One key focus area for South Africa’s newly appointed Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Dion George will be the country’s just energy transition towards a low-carbon economy.

“How South Africa participates and achieves the just transition over time, which is very important to the country and the world, is my immediate focus,” the 58-year-old who served as the Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson for finance told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday, on the eve of being sworn in as a cabinet minister.

He replaces Barbara Creecy, who is now the minister of transport. George’s appointment was announced on Sunday night, when President Cyril Rampaphosa named his government of national unity cabinet.

George said Ramaphosa had “fortunately put my name up for the job”. His deputy ministers are Narend Singh, who served as chief whip of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and Bernice Swartz, formerly the public works and infrastructure deputy minister.

“It is a very large portfolio and a very significant and important portfolio in our economy,” George said. 

“What I’m going to do in the very first instance is to wrap my head around all of the key issues in the portfolio. I come from finance and was in the finance committee for a very long time.”

He added that he had already had a discussion with a member of the Presidential Climate Commission

“In this portfolio, the big issue is the just energy transition and energy financing and I think that I can bring my expertise into that, so specifically focus on developing the financial models that will be able to accelerate our movement towards the just energy transition. That would be enormously beneficial to the portfolio and, frankly, to the country,” George said.

He also wants to see how the portfolio can have a more beneficial effect on the country’s economic growth. “In other words, how can the portfolio accelerate economic growth, specifically job-generating growth.” 

George said he had found Creecy to be a “very competent minister”, who had done a successful job in her portfolio. “I hope to meet her soon to have a chat. My impression is that it’s a well-run department and it’s been well led by her.”

‘Catalytic’ appointment

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) welcomed George’s appointment, saying it “looked forward to continuing a strong working relationship with the ministry and the department and to working with the new deputy ministers”.

“The EWT recognises that conserving the environment, and supporting sustainable development for our people, requires active engagement with business and finance. The appointment of Dr George is, hopefully, catalytic,” it added.

The EWT applauded outgoing minister Creecy for her support and willingness to work with the sector, including NGOs, during her tenure.

Among her most notable contributions, it said, was the tabling of the climate change bill before parliament, which will soon become law and convening the High Level Panel

into the management of rhino, lion, leopard and elephant, which has resulted in a number of groundbreaking developments. This includes the planned closure of the lion breeding industry and a proposed end to the commercial breeding of rhino. 

Under Creecy’s watch, South Africa also committed to a number of international goals, not least the achievement of the goals outlined in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, including the conservation of 30% of land and 30% of sea by 2030.

Another was the finalisation of the funding required to implement the common but differentiated goals for achieving climate adaptation and mitigation in developing and least developed countries under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Makoma Lekalakala, the director of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, said: “Overall, we welcome the new cabinet appointments and hope that these ministers will prioritise the interests of South Africa and its people. This includes ensuring free, prior and informed consent and respecting the people’s right to reject projects that could harm them, the environment or negatively affect livelihoods.”