Economic priorities

2010-02-26 00:00

PRAVIN Gordhan is no environmentalist. If you were listening­ to the Minister of Finance­’s first budget speech hoping­ to hear even a bare-bones outline of how his government plans to use your tax money to tackle the mounting environ­mental challenges we face, you would have been disappointed and surprised­.

Surprised because, as recently as December, the South African delegation to the failed United Nations­ Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen committed us to carbon emission cuts of 34% by 2020. You would be excused for believing that such extraordinary reductions are going to have significant implications for the country’s financial plans, but Gordhan, who didn’t even mention the Danish promise, clearly doesn’t think so.

Under the telling heading of “Industrial­ policy”, the phrases “climate change”, “reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, “sustainable technologies” and “green economy initiatives” got a cursory mention in a single paragraph devoid­ of any concrete details. The only substantive green content in Gordhan’s entire speech was the “recommendation” that new passenger cars should be subject to a carbon emissions tax: “The more fuel-efficient your car, the less tax you will pay.” While this is a worthwhile initiative, it doesn’t exactly constitute a comprehensive environmental strategy­.

Growth über alles

The most ubiquitous word in the minister’s speech was “growth”. By my count, he used it more than 30 times. Now, even if you actually believe that perpetual economic growth is either possible or desirable, as Gordhan presumably does, you have to acknowledge that such growth is fundamentally dependent on the continued exploitation of natural resources.

Since many of these resources, especially the ones we are building our current growth model on (coal, oil, gas and uranium) are nonrenewable and many others (drinking water, the oceans and the atmosphere) are in an extremely fragile state, you would also have to agree that their continued exploitation is itself predicated on their careful protection, which would surely warrant attention in the national budget speech. Apparently Gordhan doesn’t think so. It’s growth first, the environment later.

Fighting the wrong war

Most budget commentators have stopped asking questions about the biggest elephant in the room: the amount of money we’re spending on “defence”. In the current year we’ll be throwing over R33 billion at shoring up our capacity to defend ourselves against … what? Gauteng being carpet-bombed by the Lesotho Air Force? An invasion by the Namibian­ Navy?

In contrast, we’re only allocating just over R6 billion for environmental protection. Isn’t it about time to shift our national resources­ from focusing on some invisible, extremely unlikely and frankly nonexistent military threat towards fighting the real war against environmental deterioration — particularly climate change — which is already in full swing?

Business as usual

To find the part of the budget speech with the greatest impact on the environment, you have to read between the lines. Gordhan announced that over the next three years, R846 billion will be spent on public sector infrastructure, about a third of which will go towards new Eskom power plants. The Medupi power station in Limpopo and Mpumalanga’s Kusile power plant are estimated to cost some R125 billion and R142 billion respectively.

These massive coal-fired power stations, which are scheduled to become operational in stages between 2012 and 2017, will lock South Africa into a carbon-intensive, coal-fired electricity future that looks depressingly like our present. Despite Gordhan’s insistence that we have to “do things differently”, we’re in for business as usual.

Changing the agenda

Ultimately the onus to make environmental­ concerns more prominent features of the budget lies not with the minister, but with us.

The Treatment Action Campaign, through years of dedicated struggle, has made it impossible for the budget to ignore HIV/Aids and militant township protests have put “service delivery” (mentioned five times in the speech) firmly on the agenda.

To elevate the environment to a similarly high status on the government’s list of economic priorities, ordinary people like you and me need to put it there. So get active­, make a noise and let the powers that be know that you give a damn and that they should, too.

— News

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