Climate Change General News JET

South Africa CAN reclaim its moral authority by taking bold corrective action

Ten years ago, at the Copenhagen summit, South Africa made a commitment to reduce its massive carbon emissions by 42% by 2025. But two years later, it began building two of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world, meaning it has fallen far short of the emission targets it set for itself. It built these stations at huge cost to the fiscus despite the lower cost options of renewables. 

It is now the 14th-biggest polluter in the world and remains in the top three when it comes to per capita calculations. This context and other sets of inaction were why President Cyril Ramaphosa was refused a platform at the UN Climate Action Summit 2019. The government has become part of the club of polluters and in doing so has lost its moral authority on the African continent. From a thought leader on climate change, it has become an unashamed perpetrator. But the fact is that we also remain a victim, a climate hot spot that is highly vulnerable. 

In Sweden, the carbon tax is $132 per ton of CO2 emitted; in South Africa, it is set at 43 US cents. It is time to get real and unless we are able to shift it to at least $63 it will not generate nearly enough capital for the illusive just transition Ramaphosa and Mineral and Energy Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe say we are now committed to. In short, the present carbon tax will not provide the necessary capital to help shift to renewables in any meaningful manner.

We need our government to tell the truth about how the climate crisis is creating droughts and floods in the here and now and how these will be exacerbated in the next few years; what increased temperatures in our region will mean for our rivers, soil, dams, food production and the increased health risks; that floods and droughts will become our new norm.

At present, whole chunks of the planet, particularly in Africa, are on the verge of becoming wastelands — the continent is set to burn. Famine is again ravaging Zimbabwe, grazing land that is critical for the survival of poor black farmers is being lost. In our equatorial regions, deadly conflicts have become commonplace among competing tribes, whose migratory patterns in search of water are now escalating ethnic and national rivalry over borders that were previously accepted as highly porous.

It needs to inform the public that the present business as usual scenario will mean that we will not meet the 1.5°C cap set by the Paris Accord in 2015, itself a dangerously high increase, that we are on course to take us to 2°C that threatens to turn the planet into a hot-house by triggering more tipping points into an active state. It needs to inform the South African public what the scientific community is telling us about the Arctic Circle now and how that is set to radically change weather patterns even further.

In South Africa, it seems something is brewing. Meeting the challenge laid down by the UN, President Ramaphosa has announced the “boldest transition programme worldwide” after the news about South Africa being denied a platform to speak at the summit.

A bold programme will be required in 2030 which targets our key emissions source, the electricity sector, and goes beyond current plans to invest further in renewable energy.

To this end, a proposed $11-billion Just Transition Transaction is being developed under the auspices of the Eskom Sustainability Task Team. The $11-billion would consist of a blended finance facility and would be the largest climate finance transaction to date, having a significant emissions impact.

The plan is contingent on carrying out the “unbundling” of Eskom, according to Meridian, a UCT think-tank which before this statement claimed authorship of what government is now presenting. In short, private finance will not come to the party without whole-scale privatisation. Meridian says:

Implementation of the plan would be contingent on the government following through on a commitment to break up Eskom into generation, transmission and distribution units under a state holding company and reorganising its debt to place it on a more sustainable footing.”

Sean Sweeney from the International Trade Unions for Energy Democracy wrote an important piece in this regard, recently published in Business Day and other South African publications, saying:

First, unions and their allies in SA are correct: unbundling is about privatisation. It is a policy that comes straight out of the privatisation manuals of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Whatever claims are made to the contrary, unbundling is not an end in itself, but a means to “engage the private sector”.

Electricity is foundational for our economy. It is not like water — an electrical system must be actively managed, within extremely tight tolerances, in order to function at all. An out-of-balance electrical system isn’t an electrical system, it’s an explosion.

The closing of coal plants and scaling up of renewables as envisioned by the Meridian plan is now embraced by our government. The fundamental problem is to do this rapidly – in five to 10 years it “must happen in a close, planned, integrated co-ordination”. Decarbonising any economy means scaling up storage, upgrading grids, retrofitting building stock, expanding electrified public transport and so on — and these all need to be done in tight co-ordination.

The only possibility for that is with public ownership of the full spectrum of electricity assets that tie it all together. In this light, the government’s plan is yet another greenwash, that buys into the tide of green liberalism that there is money to be made out of the climate crisis, that moving away from carbon opens endless opportunities for profit. This notion must be rejected with the contempt it deserves.

Tito Mboweni will continue his massive subsidisation of fossil fuels in his medium-term budget speech when what is required is the exact opposite. These industries have to be heavily taxed through a credible carbon tax in order to fund the just transition our government recommends, rather than following the prescripts on the World Bank and others. Surely it is time to stop kicking the ball into touch, waiting for some magical panacea from the markets to resolve our country’s contradictory location in the context of global heating, climate crisis, environmental and ecological collapse.

The beginning of what this transition could look like is admirably researched and laid out in the One Million Jobs campaign supported by numerous trade unions inside our country. It is a plan that argues for a socially owned renewable energy sector, among other things, so that we can play our rightful part in mitigation and adaptation.

South Africa’s relatively unique position as both a victim and perpetrator of climate change opens up the possibility of breaking its present mould. We can become part of the solution and regain our international moral authority, or we can continue to punt false solutions and remain part of the problem that will guarantee the return of our country to its former hyena status. They have to be bold and break the state’s deep ties with the fossil fuel industry. DM

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