/ 8 February 2022

Global leaders must implement their climate commitments

Britain Climate Environment Politics
Determined: Climate change demonstrators from the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion protest in central London, promising two weeks of disruption. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

January 2022 has come and gone and yet our New Year’s resolutions are still fresh on our lips. But the commitment to improve ourselves means nothing if we don’t follow through with action.

Just like a New Year’s resolution, country leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa have spoken of big commitments to address the current crisis of climate and environmental breakdown. But many decisions made by our government perpetuate climate injustice. Our department of mineral resources and energy, for example, continues to cling to coal, and launch new fossil-fuel projects. 

With each new year, our “climate deadlines” loom closer. It is easy to lose hope as we inch closer to dangerous tipping points — including the 1.5°C level of warming above pre-industrial times. But the solutions are readily available, and a just transition to a greener world is possible. 

There are many examples of people and governments around the world taking action. Below are some highlights. 

Writing the wall for coal

In 2021, young people from across South Africa took a stand against climate injustice through actions such as protests and a ground-breaking court case. Youth from the African Climate Alliance, together with the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement and groundWork, launched a court case to challenge the inclusion of new coal in the country’s electricity plans. New coal goes against the scientific warnings that countries must act with more urgency to limit fossil-fuel use to prevent the most devastating effects of climate change. Coal has also proven to be more expensive, more water-intensive and worse for our health than alternative energy sources. 

Renewable energy more affordable 

Solar and wind are officially two of the cheapest sources of electricity in South Africa. According to the results of bid window five of the renewable energy independent power producer procurement programme, solar and wind projects are now priced at just 47c/kWh on average. This includes construction, operational and maintenance costs. Eskom’s average cost of coal purchases alone — before capital, operational and maintenance costs — is 42c/kWh. Bids from independent coal producers are more than R1/kWh. 

It is clear that to stay abreast with global energy demand and supply trends, South Africa has to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels to renewables — in a manner that protects workers and improves the lives of our citizens.

Just transition gathers momentum

At COP26, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta addressed global leaders on his country’s efforts to switch to cleaner energy alternatives. The Lake Turkana wind power project has seen the installation of the biggest wind power plants in sub-Saharan Africa. Such efforts have been instrumental in advancing access to cleaner and affordable energy in the country, with renewables advancing from 30% of supply in 2013 to 75% in 2020. The Kenyan leader sees a full transition away from coal by as soon as 2030.

Costa Rica is leveraging its water resources — as much as 78% of the country’s electricity comes from hydroelectric power. The country’s president, Carlos Alvardo, aims to make Costa Rica the first carbon-neutral country in the world.

Fossil fuels not needed for grid stability

In South Australia, the home of myriad mining and manufacturing facilities, there is continued attestation to the fact that “baseload” energy is outdated. In recent months, South Australia has set multiple records on the share of solar and wind power for gigawatt-scale grids in the world. The state closed the last of its coal generators in 2016 and should be able to switch off all gas operations by 2023, when new batteries, backed up by grid-forming inverters, come online. The shift to renewables is lowering electricity costs, and the state is proving that renewable sources can power a modern economy.

Africa’s Great Green Wall

From the coast of Senegal to Djibouti, the Great Green Wall is one of Africa’s biggest restoration projects. It aims to regenerate a region seriously affected by desertification and land degradation. The Great Green Wall will restore a strip of the savanna spanning 8 000km, creating 10-million jobs and removing 250 megatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. 

Activism is working

Young activists from the #StopCambo campaign in the UK have demonstrated that activism is an effective means of getting corporations to move away from fossil fuels. The UK had planned to drill for oil and gas in the Cambo oilfield, off the coast of Scotland’s North Sea. Shell, which was one of the companies behind the project, pulled out after months of campaigns by young activists, who were supported by the international community. In South Africa, activists and civil society groups forced Shell to withdraw from an oil and gas exploration project on our Wild Coast. The two cases demonstrate that standing together in solidarity has the power to create change.

South Africa is made up of diverse communities, most of which are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Poorer communities have done the least to contribute to the climate crisis, but they will bear the brunt of it. Much of the technology, economic solutions, indigenous knowledge, and nature-based solutions needed to solve the climate crisis are already in existence today. 

As a society, we have one of the greatest opportunities ever to use the crisis as a means to make a transition towards a greener world that benefits all. Solutions to the climate crisis are often systemic solutions that will also ensure that the rights of women, young people, and other marginalised groups are given the reverence they deserve, enabling us all to move forward together. 

It is up to all of us to ensure that those in power come to a new resolution in 2022, and follow through with the actions needed to create a just and sustainable future. 

A note on renewable energy

We will not achieve a greener and more just society without moving away from fossil fuels. The use of renewable energy, especially if socially owned, is a big stepping stone for this transition. However, it is important to acknowledge that these solutions have their own ecological effects. It is, thus, important that when implementing renewables on a broader scale that we aim to reduce harm as much as possible, and not to make the same mistakes of the past. Instead, we must we pair installing renewables alongside ecosystem restoration, economic reform, and a continuation of innovating and developing least-harm energy alternatives.