‘Climate change must be a central pillar of SA’s economic growth’

The state of the union address is the right time for the president, who is wise to the perils of extreme weather, to make climate change an economic and societal imperative

This article was published in Business Day on 6 February 2018

David Le Page, Glen Tyler-Davies and Gillian Hamilton

Climate change and the risks associated with it should be a key part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation address. How SA chooses to respond to climate change and its impact on the country will affect economic growth and social development for decades to come, yet climate change remains sidelined by the government and key sectors that are most vulnerable to its effects.

The impacts of climate change are plain to see. Last year, Cape Town barely escaped a humanitarian and economic crisis when the city warned that Day Zero — the moment when the taps would literally run dry — was a real possibility. The crisis in Cape Town has abated, but much of the rest of the country remains in the grip of one of the worst droughts in decades.

According to Agri SA, 30,000 agricultural workers have lost their jobs over the past year as a result of drought, and smaller municipalities in areas such as the central Karoo have had their budgets squeezed by the need to drill for groundwater to keep the taps running. Although the full effects have yet to be felt in the mining and coal energy sectors, a similar fate could await them.

Weather vs climate

Extreme weather events have always existed, but climate change makes extreme weather events both more likely and more severe. Without adequate preparation, the impact of these weather events is more severe. Prof Mark New, pro-vice chancellor for climate change at UCT’s African Climate and Development Initiative says we can expect the global climate to warm by about 0.25°C over the next 10 years (it warmed by 1°C over the past 100 years) and that the likelihood of drought will increase seven-fold.

SA was one of the founding signatories to the Paris Agreement, yet when it comes to implementation, we lag far behind our aspirations
We cannot predict with great accuracy when and how severe future floods and droughts may occur, though better infrastructural planning and improved government co-ordination can protect us in the short run. But to fully secure our future, we need drastic changes. By responding fully to one of the greatest threats to modern society as we know it, Ramaphosa has the greatest opportunity to establish himself as a global leader.

He has already acknowledged the risks and negative impacts associated with climate change. At the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, Ramaphosa said climate change is “no longer just a fable or a fiction” and that the drought in Cape Town was an example of the “real effect of climate change”. Similarly, SA’s policies acknowledge the need for decarbonisation. SA was one of the founding signatories to the Paris Agreement, yet when it comes to implementation, we lag far behind our aspirations.

One of the main reasons for this is that much of the ANC’s approach to rebuilding SA’s economy is flavoured by a tired reliance on extractive industries, particularly mining. This is clear in the ANC’s 2019 election manifesto in which it hedges a welcome focus on renewable energy with the claim that SA has “large coal reserves that can provide cheap energy”. In reality, these large coal reserves will ultimately cause more damage to the economy than they will ever benefit it.

Fossil fuel reliance

As things stand SA derives more than 90% of its electricity from coal. A recent report released by Climate Transparency found that SA’s electricity is the dirtiest of all the G-20 countries and that our emissions per capita are roughly double the G-20 average. This trend has been increasing in recent years as a result of SA’s high dependency on coal, expansive new coal-generation projects, and low share of renewables in power generation.

As an aspirant global climate leader, these figures are embarrassing enough, but burning fossil fuels does more than just affect the global climate — it also has direct and measurable effects on SA’s economy. Another recent study by UCT’s Energy Research Centre showed that the negative externalities associated with SA’s fossil fuel use — such as health impacts from air pollution, water quality, and environmental effects, to mention a few — could cost as much as 6% of total GDP. In other words our dependence on coal is a contributor to both immediate and global economic risks.

Aside from the very immediate financial risks associated with Eskom’s dependence on expensive coal, climate change is deeply related to many of problems that beset SA, such as poverty, inequality and corruption.

We know that as a region, Africa, and especially Southern Africa, is extremely vulnerable to climate change. We have already experienced significant increases in drought, floods, heatwaves and the fires associated with them. The impact of the increase in the number and intensity of extreme weather events will have an effect on food security, the cost of food, patterns of migration, and ultimately result in conflicts — both minor and major. For this reason we have to take action.

As part of his new approach to sweep clean and start afresh, Ramaphosa should take this opportunity to make climate change one of the central pillars of SA’s economic policy. The primary goal of any truly modern economy is the cultivation of sustained economic growth based on a healthy environment and society. Other African countries, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, that prioritise ecosystem restoration, get this and it’s time we did too.

Aside from the very immediate financial risks associated with Eskom’s dependence on expensive coal, climate change is deeply related to many of problems that beset SA, such as poverty, inequality and corruption. There is also a direct relationship between environmental degradation and inequality.

The ANC manifesto contains several references to the further development of renewable energy and a commitment to meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement. If they are serious about addressing poverty and inequality, these commitments must be renewed and elaborated on in Ramaphosa’s address — and every address for the forseeable future.

• Le Page is vice-chair of Fossil Free SA, Tyler-Davies is SA team leader of 350Africa, and Hamilton is branch manager of the African Climate Reality Project.