Home Opinion and Features OPINION: SA’s climate policy is amplifying, not solving the crisis

OPINION: SA’s climate policy is amplifying, not solving the crisis


Our leaders have failed us dismally, again, lowering the target for our greenhouse gas emissions from 440 megatons in 2030 to just 420, as if this promised 5% reduction – voluntary with no binding provisions – is somehow laudable, writes Desmond D’Sa.

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CLIMATE Change is one of the biggest threats to humanity, and government intervention is needed urgently.

In 1992 at the original Rio de Janeiro sustainability conference, world leaders gathered to recognise the climate catastrophe that faces us. The most irresponsible was former US President George Bush, when he declared: “The American way of life is not up for negotiations.” When his son George W Bush – an oil man – took over from 2001-09, there was even worse US arrogance.

But back in Rio, nearly all the leaders gathered then acted like the Yankees, ignoring the fact that, unless they addressed greenhouse gas emissions causing rising temperatures, droughts, wildfires, worse floods and other extreme weather events – like the Durban Rain Bomb of 2019 that killed 71 mainly black women, children and poor people – then the planet’s climate will start to degenerate.

The impact of that inaction is now clear for humans, animals and biodiversity, water and energy resources, agriculture, urbanisation and health-care systems. At Rio, the world leaders failed, succumbing to:

– big fossil fuel corporations adamant they had no alternative but to continue producing fuel from coal, oil and gas;

– petrochemical firms addicted to plastics and toxic products;

– automakers reliant on petrol and diesel engines;

– agri-corporations intent on high-carbon fertilisers, meat and dairy;

– high-energy manufacturers especially in the extractive industries dependent on power for smelting and processing;

– high-methane waste disposal; and

– financiers using cyber-currency data-mining techniques which today chew up as much electricity as a country the size of the Philippines.

This pattern continued, even at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change annual gatherings. Policy changes were made only at the margins, for example, in Kyoto in 1997, to introduce speculative fraud-filled gambling called emissions trading.

In Copenhagen in 2009, the idea of binding commitments was removed by Barack Obama, working with South Africa’s leader Jacob Zuma and the leaders of Brazil, China and India.

These annual gatherings did not serve the interests of the planet and people, but rather, of ripping more profits from the earth and society.

South Africa hosted the UNFCCC conference – the Cop 17 Conference of Polluters – in 2011, in Durban, my home city. We claimed to have the most progressive Constitution and environmental laws in the world, yet, when it was time to put these into action, we failed dismally.

Instead, throughout, our leaders cowered to our own – and the North’s and BRICS countries’ – major polluting corporations and big government bullies. They signed off on the execution of small island countries, as well as of our African sisters and brothers on the continent, who did least to cause the climate catastrophe, but will face the harshest consequences.

Worse, the South African delegation was often a big part of the problem in the UNFCCC, for example, by obstructing the call by the African and G77 bloc of countries to address the climate crisis seriously.

Since then, South Africa has recently submitted a ‘nationally determined contribution’ (NDC) to the UNFCCC. Our leaders have failed us dismally, again, lowering the target for our greenhouse gas emissions from 440 megatons in 2030 to just 420, as if this promised 5% reduction – voluntary with no binding provisions – is somehow laudable.

While UN climate negotiators are failing us, the UN’s scientific body – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – just warned of new climate feedback loops such as the loss of reflective white albedo from melting ice, large-scale venting of carbon dioxide and methane from melting permafrost peat bogs in the Arctic and Siberia, and the proliferation of wildfires.

The scientists conclude that “rapid and far-reaching” changes are needed in the economic system to keep temperature increases below 1.5°C.

We also believe that in the process, creating a more equal society is an imperative: “climate justice”. We remain the world’s most unequal society, with the poverty rate of roughly R50/person/day well over 60%, so whatever we do to address climate crisis must simultaneously address social injustice.

From politicians and big business, we have been hearing chatter about a Just Transition for low-income communities and workers that will be affected by de-carbonisation, like those in South Durban, but after all these years of such rhetoric, there has been zero progress.

Instead, the elites have introduced carbon trading, which allows those firms which reduce emissions to sell credits to ‘offset’ the emissions of others which want to keep polluting. Our Treasury has introduced a carbon tax law, with provision for offsets, which is at heart a market strategy. The real cost of CO2 emissions is now estimated at $3,000 (R43,496)/ton, new research suggests, but Treasury charges firms as low as $0.42/ton, and even that trivial tax will in future be offset.

Offsetting now underpins the phrase ‘net zero’. It relies on what Greta Thunberg terms ‘accounting gimmicks.’ They include supposed ‘natural climate solutions’ that assume carbon absorbed by restored sinks (wetlands, forests and grasslands) will permit more emissions from fossil fuels. While eco-system restoration is essential, it can only restore what was previously lost by eco-system destruction.

Offsets also rely upon ’carbon capture and storage,’ which is a hypothetical engineering solution to strip carbon from the exhaust gas and bury it under the earth. It is very expensive, very energy-intensive, and would require massive construction of new infrastructure. The few pilot schemes at power plants are technical and economic failures. In some cases, the CO2 is then sold for ‘enhanced oil recovery’ to restore pressure in ageing oil wells and so to extract more fossil fuel.

A genuine Just Transition must be based on the needs of the planet and must be generated bottom-up, by workers in high-carbon industries, by communities who will suffer, and by everyone whom the current system makes poor. The specific care-giving roles of women, the result of their subordination within patriarchal relations, means they and the youth should be central to the deep transformation needed for a Just Transition worthy of the name.

The youth and people of the world have spoken: ‘’No to any more delays and compromising of our future. Act now and do the right thing for the planet and its people!“

* Desmond D’Sa is chairperson of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA and Independent Media.


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