Call to action: SA needs to radically reduce its economic dependence on emission intensive sectors

Gouda wind farm, in the Western Cape. Photo: Karen Sandison/ Independent Newspapers

Gouda wind farm, in the Western Cape. Photo: Karen Sandison/ Independent Newspapers

Published Apr 24, 2024


By Blessing Manale

For the last three decades, South Africa has grappled with deep-rooted social and economic challenges. Widening inequalities, crumbling infrastructure, and lack of access to basic services are prevalent across the country and yet a vibrant green economy sector and rich natural biodiversity support millions of South Africans by providing food, jobs and livelihoods remains explorable and yet to be fully beneficiated.

Yet these crucial resources are at risk from climate change as it ravages and alters South African ecosystems, economies, and livelihoods and further worsened by staggering rates of poverty, unemployment and inequality which bring to fore the imperative of a just transition.

Significant levels of load shedding and energy uncertainty – negatively impacting the country’s economic growth, and in turn leading to further unemployment. There is a marked increase in levels of hopelessness, especially amongst the extremely poor and vulnerable in society, with an undercurrent of risk in terms of possible further socio-economic unrest.

South Africa’s climate priorities span climate adaptation and mitigation and includes key climate actions, including creating a Presidential Climate Commission, South Africa’s Low Emissions Development Strategy, a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, and a Just Transition Framework.

While South African continuously seeks common solutions to their current woes, there remains lack of consensus in terms of South Africa’s shift away from fossil-fuel to renewable energy – with high levels of contestation in terms of both the nature and pace of the transition. South Africa is currently amongst the highest ranked countries, globally, in terms of environmental pollution due to the continued use of coal.

Securing our hard-earned gains through international cooperation

The growing severity, however, of climate change depends on the ability of the world to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa’s economic trajectory heavily relies on the swift transition from coal to solar and wind energy to ensure affordable and dependable electricity.

Responding to this challenge will require both international assistance and coordinated action by public and private sector actors, addressing systemic social, economic, and environmental issues.

Many of South Africa’s trading partners are adopting ambitious emission reduction and net-zero targets, which will potentially result in emission-intensive products losing their competitiveness. Thus, climate change has the potential to further undermine people’s livelihoods and the country’s economic recovery plans.

Additionally, South Africa advocates for a “just transition” in international climate talks, emphasising social justice and urging high-income nations to fund decarbonisation efforts and address climate-related impacts in middle- and low-income countries, with national emission targets set accordingly.

As South Africans we must build the climate resilience of the country, its economy and its people and manage the transition to a climate-resilient, equitable and internationally competitive lower-carbon economy and society in a manner that simultaneously addresses our national priorities for sustainable development, job creation, improved public and environmental health, poverty eradication, and social equality.

The challenges are an opportunity not to be missed

To date, attempts to deliver a just transition in South Africa have been inadequate, owing to the lack of access to financial, technological, and other resources in the implementation of adaptation and mitigation strategies to effectively deal with the impacts of climate change, leaving our communities and societies on their own.

The Presidential Climate Commission has argued that the transition must be both procedurally just, ensuring that the most climate-vulnerable groups (in particular, women and young people) participate in decision-making, and substantively just, through climate-compatible development that addresses the needs of vulnerable workers (employed and unemployed) and communities.

On the 30th anniversary of our freedom and democracy, we face the difficult task of radically reducing its economic dependence on emission intensive sectors while also lifting people out of poverty and unemployment, reducing unsustainable inequality, and managing the impact of increasingly damaging weather events.

The call to respond to those facing the impacts of climate change speaks of an impatient generation who must be allowed to choose how they will “live their lives in the future” in a more inclusive 21st century climate regime.

Inaction in the face of such change threatens to unwind the developmental gains made since democracy - this is not an option.

Blessing Manale is the head of Communications: Presidential Climate Commission.