15 of 17: South Africa’s challenges in a race towards a Green Economy

In our 15th article in a series of 17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17, Future Cape Town team member Dinika Govender argues that a consistent commitment is needed from all spheres if South Africa is to start making progress, in both reducing its carbon emissions and creating jobs – often considered to be competing goals. Govender goes on to highlight policy recommendations from the World Bank’s report on South Africa’s economy, which could address these competing goals and ensure that the move towards a truly Green Economy is in our national interest.

In an example of the divide between the developed and developing world, which some may choose to refer to as, the Post-Industrialized and Previously Colonized, it may seem easier for the world’s economic heavy-weights to start dusting themselves off of the very fossil-fuelled energy that they helped to propagate, in favour of renewables. Emerging economies, in contrast, are faced with the option of continued dependence on fossil fuels to fuel economic growth in a historic game of Catch-Up; or of investing heavily in green technology (and most often imported expertise) at the risk of perpetuating socio-economic inequalities.

South Africa’s signing of its own Green Accord to commit to renewable energy is no exception. The signing of the accord arrived in time to shed optimistic light on RSA ahead of COP17- but the substance of the agreement represents a much-needed, multi-pronged commitment by national government to put policy, money and action where its mouthpiece is. As the country responsible for 38% of Africa’s carbon emissions, but also the country with a Gini coefficient of 0.68, South Africa bears the responsibility of cleaning up its act without harming the economy more.

Without a consistent commitment to green-consciousness and basic education across all geo-demographic levels of society, more green policies for the sake of making it into the “Green Economy Gang” would be to reduce sustainability and energy-resource allocation to an act of Green Washing.

This was the warning wavered by the World Bank in its South Africa Economic Update- and it comes at an important time where South Africa’s status as host of COP17 could herd policy-makers happily- and too hastily- to where the grass appears greener.

The World Bank’s report highlighted the fact that RSA’s carbon-reduction goals in the New Growth Path (NGP) and the Green Economy Accord are conditional on financing and technological assistance from developed nations; but with the World Bank downgrading SA’s expected real GDP growth from 4.1% to 3.1% for 2012, the job-creation plans entailed in these agreements are not guaranteed. To hinge the hopes of local job-creation on the financial commitment of nations that are at risk of relapsing into recession, and breaking a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol (and retreating into protectionism) would be, at worst, unsustainable.

This does not mean that SA should abandon all hope of green economic freedom in our lifetime- it simply means that green policies must enable local job-creation without worsening the excess demand for foreign skills and expertise. Ruth Kagia, the World Bank country director for RSA puts it quite aptly: “Green policies are not a silver bullet, and they cannot be a substitute for pro-growth, job-boosting policies, just as fast growth cannot replace the need for well-designed environmental policies.”

Michael Toman, a research manager on the World Bank report suggests a few following “sensible” policy considerations, such as:

–       Carbon tax that could off-set other taxes, be reinvested by the state in green infrastructure, and lower pollution-related health costs

–       Training and up-skilling programmes as vital components of all green initiatives

–       Boosting opportunities for SMEs focusing on energy efficiency

Christiana Figueres, speaking at the opening of the COP17 conference in Durban on 28 November, urged delegates to “remember that it always seems impossible until it is done” as she hailed South Africans’ ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

And sure, with fiercely optimistic perseverance South Africa definitely can spring-leap the wasteful trappings of a fossil-fuel dependent economy, as long as such optimism is consciously applied to lowering the barriers to entry to a green economy for all.

To the parrafin and coal-powered homes of townships like Nyanga; or to the importer of solar heaters in Cape Town, conversion to genuinely sustainable practices will take more than international pressure to wear labels of “green” or “enviro-friendly”. It will take a public and private, domestic and international, local and national commitment to the idea that with a little resourcefulness, the “Green Economy” will not have to be one sector of our economy- but its lifeblood.

Read the World Bank’s South African Green Policy report here: http://bit.ly/SAEUnov2011

17 Sustainable Ideas for COP17 is a collaboration between This Big City and Future Cape Town running alongside the United Nations Climate Change Conference from November 28th to December 9th.