Barbara Creecy | Climate change risks to economic recovery need to be met head-on

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Footage taken by UNICEF on 24 January shows widespread flooding in the Buzi area of Mozambique after the landfall of Cyclone Eloise. (Screengrab, AFP)
Footage taken by UNICEF on 24 January shows widespread flooding in the Buzi area of Mozambique after the landfall of Cyclone Eloise. (Screengrab, AFP)

A better and more mainstreamed understanding of the climate transition risk our historical growth trajectory poses to the long-term sustainability of our economy and society is needed, writes Barbara Creecy.

The risks of climate change to building a post Covid-19 Green Economy need to be expanded as the country emerges from the challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan prioritises the need to overcome abiding constraints and provide sustainable solutions to intractable problems of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Central to the plan’s objectives are, in the words of President Ramaphosa, "to forge a new economy in a new global reality".

Climate change is one of those new global realities. The 2021 Global Risks Report published in January this year under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, identified infectious diseases, livelihood crises and extreme weather events as the risks most likely to become critical threats to the world in the coming two years.

Zurich Insurance Group chief risk officer, Peter Giger quipped "there is no vaccine against climate risks, so post-pandemic recovery plans must focus on growth aligned with sustainable agendas".

Climate change destruction

Climate change poses both risks and opportunities to our society and economy. On the risk side, extreme weather events including storms, droughts, and rising sea levels, are already part of our lived reality.

In the last week of January, more than 20 people died in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and South Africa as a result of the destruction caused by tropical cyclone Eloise. We were reminded once again how vulnerable the developing world is to extreme weather events.

Nevertheless, due to the advanced early warning systems of our SA Weather Service, and the impressive coordinated response of our Disaster Management capability, at national, provincial and local government level, we were able to take advance measures to manage some of the worst impacts of the storm on both people and infrastructure.

This process was assisted by the implementation by all levels of government of adaptation strategies arising from the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy that was approved by Cabinet last year.

READ | Barbara Creecy: Covid-19 is a dress-rehearsal for climate change response

What we now need is a better and more mainstreamed understanding of the climate transition risk our historical growth trajectory poses to the long-term sustainability of our economy and society.

Over the last year, in response to investor and societal pressure, nine of the world’s 12 largest economies, and many of our major trading partners, have already made net zero carbon commitments.

These countries include China, the EU bloc, Japan, and Korea. Similar pronouncements are expected from the US’s Biden Administration now that it has announced it will rejoin the Paris Agreement.

Because our energy and production processes are highly carbon intensive, our major trading partners, who have made net zero commitments, are likely to prioritise trade with other low carbon economies. This poses a risk of non-tariff trade barriers going forward. Already there is increasing pressure from financial institutions who refuse to fund the development of new carbon intensive assets.


This is one of the challenges that needs to be addressed by South Africa. While Eskom, as the country’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, has committed in principle to net zero carbon emission by 2050, the work of the Presidential Climate Change Commission must lay the groundwork for the development of a clear plan that will take us from an aspirational commitment to a low carbon, climate resilient economy and society to the reality of new technology, new investment and, above all, new jobs. 

The commission will provide the much-needed institutional mechanism to bring together government, civil society, business and labour to advise government on the just transition. It will further leverage partnerships and collaboration across all relevant sectors to implement programmes that encapsulate the just transition in a coherent and coordinated manner.  

Eskom recently announced that it would shortly be calling for proposals to repower and repurpose Komati power station in Mpumalanga. Studies to facilitate similar initiatives are underway for Hendrina, Grootvlei and Camden.

Investment in the green economy and green technologies provides strategic advantages for our country: it opens access to new green financing opportunities; it offers the possibility of significant proven job creation; it has potential to localise production and services which will build small and medium enterprises and of course it enhances our long term competitiveness while mitigating our transition risks.

Work opportunities 

The green industries component included in our own Reconstruction and Recovery Plan highlights the diversification of South Africa’s energy sources. These range from retrofitting public and private buildings to improve energy and water efficiency; revitalisation of eco-tourism, which has been hard hit by travel bans; research and development in the agricultural space of drought resistant crops and cultivation methods; support for small farmers in the forestry space; and building the Circular Economy in the waste management space.

READ | Opinion: Wetlands are central to green economy recovery strategies

Efforts to grow the green economy through the expansion of biodiversity economy initiatives such as tourism, wildlife, biotrade, bioprospecting, and the fisheries and forestry sectors are being expanded, as are steps to support rural communities adversely affected by the decline of tourism.

To support rural communities adversely affected by the decline of tourism we have through the support of the Presidential Employment Stimulus created 50 000 work opportunities, almost ten thousand of which are in our national parks and involve infrastructure repairs and upgrades so that our facilities are in good shape when international tourism returns.

- Barbara Creecy is the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.

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