A recent report that argues we are understating the existential threat of climate change cites this George Orwell 1984 quote in its foreword. The human race is yet to fully grasp the enormity of climate change, and we continue to underestimate the urgency of this phenomenon, its causes, and its impacts – and as such, our policies and plans have been ‘a flagrant violation of reality’.
South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) is a good example of the country’s inability, if not reluctance, to come to terms with the mammoth challenge that climate change poses. While this may be a good way to remain sane, it is a terrible, myopic way of ensuring we will survive into the future.
For one thing, we barely acknowledge how badly and rapidly our natural environment is already degrading. The 2018 Yale Environmental Performance Index shows that South Africa’s environmental performance, measured against ten indicators relating to environmental health and ecosystem viability, has dropped to 142nd out of 180 countries – a staggering decline from 2014 where South Africa was 72nd out of 178 countries. The majority of the declining factors link directly to global warming.
This should certainly be an area of concern for the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, as it reflects on the democratic government’s success – or lack thereof – in “delivering on the promise of a better life for all South Africans”. The 25-year review that DPME recently embarked on needs to interrogate how government policies and interventions are upholding our right to “an environment that is not harmful to [our] health or well-being, and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations” (Section 24 of the South African Constitution).
The NDP is South Africa’s long-term development plan, intended to focus all South Africans around common objectives and priorities to drive development for current and future generations. The original plan from 2012 outlines a vision and sector-specific goals to be achieved by 2030. The NDP identified 15 key challenges together with proposals and actions to address them.
Climate change and the need to both mitigate and adapt to it are the biggest challenges of our time, and should be prioritised as such. The reason for that is simple: climate change impacts most social and economic development parameters, be they livelihoods, employment, food security, health or housing. Conversely, the solutions for reducing and adapting to these effects also happen to give us the opportunity to achieve social and economic justice.
However, climate change mitigation is relegated to the fifth chapter of the NDP: ‘An Equitable Transition to a Low-carbon Economy’. To this date, government has failed to implement any form of structured plan to action this ‘just transition’. The energy sector crisis we are experiencing is the most obvious example of these stalling politics.
While South Africa is lucky enough not to be in denial as a country, this is a clear case of cognitive dissonance. Conflicting intentions and behaviours when it comes to achieving sustainable development are a source of growing discomfort, which manifests itself through heightened social and political tensions.
Stop and think about the implications of this increase in heat alone. And what about the steady rise in extreme weather events we are already experiencing, such as droughts, flooding, fires?
Here are a few examples of how it is (already now) impacting the NDP objectives:
Economy and employment – the financial costs of the impacts of climate change, including investing in stranded assets such as fossil fuel power plants, will reduce our economic potential, thus employment opportunities;
Economic Infrastructure – increasingly frequent and extreme weather events are likely to damage our current and planned infrastructure such as buildings, roads, etc.;
An integrated and inclusive rural economy – climate change is directly impacting agriculture due to changing climate conditions and rainfall patterns. Coal mining, which feeds one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, is detrimental to agriculture because of land use changes as well as water and soil pollution;
Safer communities – the poorer communities are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as they don’t necessarily have the resources needed to cope with rapidly changing circumstances, let alone extreme weather events. The floods that engulfed large parts of Alexandra’s informal settlement in 2016 are a good example. Climate change is also feeding instability and tensions, as people and communities face increasingly challenging living conditions. The events in Syria give us an idea of what the future might look like for South Africa.
To a large extent, the South African Government, labour, and business are not united in the vision behind Chapter 5 of the NDP. As a result, there are multiple instances where the implementation of existing legislation and policies fall short – or worse, go against the objective of transitioning to a low-carbon economy.
It is extremely concerning that there is a persisting sentiment in South Africa that environmental issues are separate from, and even conflicting with socio-economic matters. “Development comes at a cost”, stated an employee of the African Development Bank (AfDB) at the Africa Investment Forum held in Johannesburg on 7-9 November 2018. That cost is climate change, and she seemed to believe that it is a price worth paying – but who will foot the bill?
This statement is not only false; it is dangerously misguiding. It doesn’t have to be that way.
A case of collective dissociative identity disorder
Although Chapter 5 of the NDP does have some good elements and recognises the link to employment, public health, and the importance of aligning policy and regulation towards a transition; there has been little progress towards the plans it lays out. (See table below)
One example: our current energy generation choices. On the one hand, we have a climate change mitigation target in the form of a greenhouse gas emissions trajectory which foresees that our national emissions will peak, plateau, and decline between now and 2050; and that this will be South Africa’s “fair contribution” to the global effort to reduce heat-trapping emissions – a contribution which is incompatible with keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 °C.
On the other hand, as though suffering from dissociative identity disorder, the country continues to invest in energy infrastructure that undermines its ability to achieve this objective. At the same time, these investments have devastating effects on human health and water usage, and channels crucial investment to stranded assets, i.e. infrastructure that will become obsolete or a liability before the end of their economic life. Sadly, the list of examples is long:
Medupi and Kusile Coal Power Stations – especially, government’s refusal to halt the construction of the remaining 2 units;
the planned coal-fired power stations Thabametsi and Khanyisa, in which the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) and private South African banks are planning to invest; the coal-fired power station of the Energy and Metallurgical Special Economic Zone in Limpopo (backed by Chinese investors, this power station would only supply the local industrial park, with air pollution and additional greenhouse gas emissions as only benefits for the surrounding communities and the planet);
Operation Phakisa – ironically, a programme developed under the very same Ministry that has developed the NDP. Operation Phakisa has two contradictory programmes within the Oceans Lab Programme: Offshore Oil & Gas exploration together with Marine Protection. How do we reconcile these two projects with each other, never mind with the Transition to a Low-carbon Economy?
Action 24 calls on the National Planning Commission, Government as a whole, business, and organised labour to face reality – even at the cost of their own sanity. Climate change must be prioritised as the biggest, all-encompassing challenge South Africa and the world faces. We need to rapidly mainstream in all strategic planning, policies and programmes solutions that will allow future generations of South Africans to live a decent life.
Progress towards Chapter 5 objectives of the NDP:
Roles and institutional arrangements established, legislated and staffed appropriately
Evidence base for climate change policy established for both mitigation and adaptation
SA Mitigation targets defined and SA taking action to meet it
SA mitigation target has been defined and submitted under the Paris Agreement, however, this target is not compliant with a less than 2 Degrees Celsius result
Carbon-budgets established and guides infrastructure spending and business plans for appropriate mitigation actions
No carbon budgets established
Policy and regulation are aligned to a Just Transition
Policy and regulation are not aligned to a just transition
Potential policy and investment lock-ins identified, trade-offs managed and sunken costs avoided
Policy and investment lock-ins have not been identified, government continues to invest in stranded assets: National Treasury, Department of Energy and Department of Environmental Affairs are not committed to an energy transition e.g. new coal build in the form of Medupi, Khusile and new coal IPPs
Carbon tax in place
By 2018, still no carbon tax in place
Additional mitigation instruments align with the carbon-budget
No carbon budget and no additional mitigation instruments have been developed
Flagship Mitigation and Adaptation Projects are under way
We do not have reports available from all of these projects. Furthermore, the Renewable Energy flagship problem was significantly delayed with disastrous impacts on both carbon emissions and on our economy.
SA accesses international assistance for mitigation and adaptation actions
SA accesses international assistance for developing policy and GCF funding has been obtained for small adaptation projects.
Climate change is well represented at forums for regional cooperation
Little regional cooperation for climate change, in fact, the South African government
Two additional integrated resource plans (IRP) and include carbon constraints appropriate to SA’s mitigation efforts and the price of carbon
There is currently a draft IRP but the carbon constraints are still not appropriate to SA’s mitigation efforts and the price of carbon.
Significant investment in place for climate change research and development plus for skills development
There is a distinct lack of investment in place for skills development – although a renewable energy training facility has been established in Cape Town, there is little support from SETA’s and other institutions to develop skills for the Green Economy.
Institutional capacity is starting to emerge, based on a just and resilient low-carbon economy and society
At this stage, it seems that only the Department of Environmental Affairs and the four biggest Metros have developed institutional capacity regarding climate change. At Provincial level and within other National Departments, there is little capacity.
The carbon-budget has evolved into an important planning tool that informs ongoing policy development and implementation
As we have no carbon budgets, this is unlikely to take place
State capacity has increased and skills development interventions are active all over the country
Annual data on emissions levels and climate impact feeds into policy and regulatory processes
We still do not have an updated GHG Inventory. Our calculations are all based on GHGs from the early 2000s.
International assistance has been secured for mitigation projects, to align with global objectives
Resilience planning is integrated into all planning processes in the country
Planning is starting for the post-2030 period with strong regional perspective
A culture of energy efficiency in society is well established
The one advantage of increased tariff hikes from Eskom plus load-shedding is that South Africans are far more aware of the need for energy-efficiency.
Disclaimer: This article was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the implementing organisations and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.