Alex Lenferna | Remove those in power who deny the urgency of the climate crisis

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The author argues that pollution must be reined in and instead build a climate-resilient, zero-carbon future. (Getty)
The author argues that pollution must be reined in and instead build a climate-resilient, zero-carbon future. (Getty)

Alex Lenferna argues that the effect of climate change has been devastating, making the country poorer and unequal and if we fail to act, it could worsen, undoing our country's already fragile developmental progress.

Wildfires in the Western Cape, drought in the Eastern Cape, and flooding in KwaZulu-Natal. These are just some of the 33 recorded extreme weather events that have ravaged our country over the last decade or so. South Africa's lived experience confirms what the science has made clear: climate change is no longer a future threat but is with us here and now.  

Already the impacts of climate change have been devastating, making South Africa poorer and more unequal. However, if we further fail to act on the climate crisis, it could worsen, undoing our country's already fragile developmental progress.

READ | EXPLAINER: Eating less meat, farming differently can help achieve net-zero emissions

To avert deepening climate catastrophe, the world's leading scientists tell us that we will need to act rapidly, not in ten years, but starting yesterday. Across the globe, we must transform our economies in sectors from power, transportation, agriculture, building, and industry.

Across our societies, we will need to rapidly rein in pollution and build instead a climate-resilient, zero-carbon future. That might sound like a daunting task, but it is also one of our greatest opportunities to build a more just and prosperous future.

More jobs 

If the world takes this transformation imperative seriously, it could be one of the most significant engines for job creation, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. If we take just a third of what governments currently use to subsidise polluting coal, oil and gas, and invest instead in clean, renewable industrialisation, we could create hundreds of millions more jobs.

Likewise, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear, taking transformative action on climate change provides us with our best chance to eradicate poverty and ensure sustainable development. The opportunity to do so, though is rapidly slipping out of our hands. Whether we will allow it to slip away altogether remains up to us. 

We are in a race against time, where every ton of avoided pollution matters. So, every action counts. But small actions count a little, while big actions count a lot. So, while making individual lifestyle changes matters, especially for the rich, they only matter a little. What we most need is to collectively push for deep and rapid structural, technological, and societal changes.

READ | Eskom is now the world's worst-polluting power company, according to data analysis

Following this line of logic, here in South Africa, the Climate Justice Coalition has a campaign to transform the most prominent climate polluter on the African continent, our power utility Eskom. The coalition's Green New Eskom campaign is pushing for a rapid and just transition to a more socially owned renewable energy future.

Fortunately, Eskom is starting to come to the table. Their Just Energy Transition office is plotting a path forward to ensure a just transition to a renewable energy future. That said, Eskom does need to move further and faster to bring online renewables to address both the climate crisis and load shedding. However, they are being held back largely by politics, not economics.

South Africa's most significant obstacle to embracing this rapid shift lies with the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. Under the leadership of Minister Gwede Mantashe, the department is pushing a vision of energy from a bygone era of polluting coal, nuclear and fossil gas. That's despite the fact that renewables and storage are much cheaper. 

Outdated plans 

The department aims to lock our energy future into the outdated vision of the 2019 Integrated Resources Plan. It's a plan which forces in expensive and unnecessary new coal and gas power plants. Meanwhile, it heavily limits more affordable renewable energy — blocking a vital source of job creation, economic growth, and electricity desperately needed to tackle load-shedding.  

Mantashe's DMRE and their polluting vision go directly against what climate change science says we must do. In the words of UN secretary general António Guterres:  "There must be no new coal plants built… Countries should also end all new fossil fuel exploration and production, and shift fossil-fuel subsidies into renewable energy."

READ | Pieter du Toit: Mantashe - Zuma man, Bosasa beneficiary, and ANC enforcer but not a Cabinet minister

Wind and sun-rich South Africa could be leading the world into a renewable energy future. It could provide us with one of our greatest economic opportunities. However, economic progress is being held back by captured politicians seemingly blinded by greed and outdated ideologies. 

Mantashe's intransigence demonstrates one of the vital tasks ahead to tackle climate change: to remove those from power who seem to be captured by polluting industries. That's why civil society groups are petitioning President Cyril Ramaphosa to replace Mantashe with a leader who has a vision to solve our dual climate and energy crisis.

Stand up 

At this historic juncture, science makes clear that we need everyone to put their shoulders to the wheel of collective change. We must stand against corporations and captured governments who deny the urgency of the climate crisis, and threaten to condemn our collective future to deepening devastation. 

Beyond the realm of politics, we need leaders and people from every walk of life pushing for change in every business, community, and organisation. In the words of President Obama: "We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it."  

- Dr Alex Lenferna, climate campaigner at

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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