As the first month of the year passed by in a flash and the New Year hype came to an end, many new year’s resolutions that were made with all the best intentions begin to seem less likely and some simply fade to the back of our minds in the face of the reality of the year ahead, as other priorities seem to become more urgent and find their way ahead of those seemingly noble resolutions. Similarly in South Africa and across the globe after the flurry of green resolutions, accords and policies that were put in place before, during and after COP 17, faced with the reality of a hard economic year, filled with recession in many places, widespread poverty in others and both elsewhere, many may begin to see the green accords and the green economy, like many new year’s resolutions, as a noble aspiration but one that is disposable during tough times.
Indeed, libertarians (of the more self-serving strain) are continuing to decry environmental standards and policies for their draconian and liberty-restricting nature (and sometimes in the most illogical ways). However, contrary to many unfounded and contradictory pseudo-libertarian claims that are being thrown around, we must not forget that no sensible or fair libertarian policy should allow us to infringe on the liberty of others, or harm others through allowing us to degrade the environment on which they depend. Our liberty is (or should be) restricted by the liberty of others. As such we must not lose sight that the green economy is not a disposable luxury we can return to at a later stage. If the green economy is not viable, then the economy itself is not viable, in which case, in the words of Andrew Simms, “bye-bye us”. As Faith Briol the chief economist of the International Energy Agency points out, “delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent to compensate for the increased emissions.” Of course, even though climate change will affect everyone, the additional $4.30 won’t be spread out equally across the globe nor across the generational divide and will most likely affect places like Niger, Somalia and Small Island States the most, even more than they currently are. As such civil society must use whatever resolutions were passed, as weak as they may be, to push for the development of a greener economy, and more than that push for better policies in the future.
So what can we do? My friend and fellow tracker from Pakistan, Farrukh Zaman lays out some of the possibilities for the international climate change regime here, which is well worth a read. Manish Bapna and Vinod Thomas also give us some great ideas which are good for both the economy and the environment. In fact even our very own President Zuma was (somewhat surprisingly) part of the “High Level Panel On Sustainability” under Ban Ki-Moon who just released their rather impressively titled “Resilient People, Resilient Planet: A Future Worth Choosing” containing 56 recommendation to put sustainable development into practice and mainstream it into economic policy as quickly as possible. Indeed there is much to do on both the international and national scene that is good for both the environment and economy. In South Africa, however, it seems that the environment and the economy will resume their politically perceived position at loggerheads with each other, despite some of our most marvellous environmental rhetoric during COP 17. Already Eskom is warning of rolling power blackouts across the country, and our major ‘solutions’ to such a problem seem not to be coming from renewables but mostly from nuclear and the development of new highly controversial mega coal power plants, which are from what the climate requires despite the reassurances of the South African Environmental Minister that these aren’t the same coal plants as the 1950’s for they will be using technologies such as carbon capture and storage (which is problematic in its own right, although not according to COP 17, which passed it as a legitimate form of clean development under the clean development mechanism).
In South Africa, as in many places, we are faced with an apparent energy dilemma: we have an expanding industrial economy, which we are fuelling with fossils, but green resolutions that are asking us to do otherwise. This is indeed a tricky dilemma as Faranaaz Parker’s balanced article on renewables suggests. This, however, is the time that we in South Africa need to see past this somewhat false dilemma. Yes, we cannot continue to fuel the current industrial economy without mega energy projects, but what are the products of our current economy such that it is so valuable? Top-down, unequal industrial development that benefits a few often at the expense of many. Is this really the economic product that we want? For the majority of South Africans (except for the symbolic 1%), I doubt it. We need to redefine our development paradigm to include more localised bottom-up development, which includes ecological considerations and health as important development indicators, for which renewable energies and less resource intensive development is more suited. We as a nation need to begin to question and rethink the development paradigm that has allowed us to become one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters and resource intense economies in the world, but still allows for such great poverty and inequality, represented by growing urban sprawl with elite pockets of wealth surrounded by burgeoning squatter camps, coupled with environmentally insensitive and often degrading development. Indeed, the industrial development paradigm that we currently seem hell-bent on pursuing is failing throughout the Western world, and many of the reasons why it did originally work anyway was because of the West’s exploitation and exportation of negative impacts beyond their own borders. We don’t have access to the quite same (perverse) privilege so why emulate something that is not “sustainable” – however you choose to interpret this famously ambiguous term?
It is important for Africa to rethink its development trajectory, and indeed green policies, such as South Africa’s proposed carbon tax, as well as internationally binding treaties, are potentially important in providing the framework within which to shift that trajectory. We must, however, ensure that the dialogue and action is not always focused on the national and international level and that we do not find ourselves in futile wait for action from above, when nothing is happening on the ground. After all there is no small amount of hypocrisy and irony in decrying the inability of government to solve climate change from the driver’s seat of an SUV, on your way back home from a job exploiting the environment to enjoy a steak dinner. Although the (somewhat disappointing) UNFCCC regime is important, as are national policies, it is also important to remember that it is local, domestic and individual actions that make up the global climate. After all “our complete world economy is built upon millions of small private acts of psychological surrender, the willingness of people to acquiesce in playing their assigned parts as cogs in the great [and in our case often destructive] social machine” as Thedore Roszak so elegantly points out.
As such while not losing focus on the national and international scene it’s time, I feel, to knuckle back down and focus on the local. For, to quote a friend, what we need now are doers not dialoguers (although judging by this article I clearly think dialogue is important too). We cannot make the environment and the climate something we pay homage and attention to for two weeks every year at COP, or endlessly through our words, rather the climate and our environment must become incorporated into our very way of being, for to do otherwise is to blind ourselves to the context of our existence and in doing so to infringe on the freedoms and rights of so many others who will be negatively affected by our actions and inactions, including both current and future generations of human and non-human species. This may be a lot easier said than done, but even in the often gloomy outlook cast over the globe there is an endless realm of positive possibilities to make a difference. Here are just 12 to get you started.
About the authorAlex Lenferna
Tracking #SouthAfrica's role in #UNFCCC / #climatechange negotiations for @adoptnegotiator. Philosopher, environmentalist, activist, perpetual student and more