OPINION | Mapi Mhlangu: Climate change - SA's footnote that should be daily, flashing headline

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Climate change has put southern Africa at the forefront of global warming, writes the author. (Photo: Alaister Russell/Gallo Images)
Climate change has put southern Africa at the forefront of global warming, writes the author. (Photo: Alaister Russell/Gallo Images)

Our lackadaisical approach to climate change is perplexing because we are in the eye of the storm, writes Mapi Mhlangu.

Nearly five months after KwaZulu Natal was ground zero for what some have labelled the province's worst floods on record, the sheer scale of the devastation it left behind remains unfathomable. In what is widely accepted to have been a climate-change-precipitated calamity, South Africa recorded 459 death due to recent floods in the eastern and coastal KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, flattening over 12 000 homes and leaving 40 000 without decent shelter. 

Imagine if our government had the political will and means to confront this force and repel it decisively. And imagine further that this rampaging force, despite its menacing threats, barely features in the daily political discourse among our leaders.

Sadly, grassroots movements calling for a focus on climate change are yet to become mainstream lobbies with the ear of our leaders. At the rate of devastation caused by climate change, the masses should be up in arms calling for heads to roll. But the silence is deafening.

Not a political priority 

Though we have the means, there is little at a policy level to drive the change required, despite the subject matter (climate change) already generating significant political heat (excuse the pun).

Climate scientists reckon that the recent floods in KZN and Eastern Cape and their cataclysmic toll are a mere foretaste of what's likely to become commonplace. Yet while we have the means to forestall this grim reality manifesting, it appears not to be a political priority. In fact, it has elicited a rolling of the eye or two whenever it’s been mentioned in major political speeches. 

Our lackadaisical approach to climate change is perplexing because we are in the eye of the storm. I recently interviewed a man who lost his home and four children in the recent KZN floods. In the aftermath of the tragedy, he was allowed to bury the deceased and rebuild his house on the same plot of land without any environmental assessment being done. I was not surprised by the family's poor knowledge about the nexus between their tragic loss and climate change. 

READ | EXPLAINER: Why climate-change 'loss and damage' will be a hot topic at COP27

Furthermore, climate change has put southern Africa at the forefront of global warming. The South African government estimates that for every 2°C increase in global average temperature, our country's temperature will increase by 4°C. For a sustainable South Africa, the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (NCCAS) emphasises adapting to change to combat global warming. 

Environmental groups have constantly criticised South Africa's reliance on coal and other fossil fuels for energy. On the other hand communities, in coal-belt towns, have raised concerns about possible job losses as the country transitions from coal to a greener energy mix. While these concerns have merit, the planned climate mitigation measures include birthing a new green energy sector that offers prospects for sustainable employment after reskilling. 

Above global average 

However, using 2019 data, the Global Carbon Atlas ranks South Africa as the world's 12th largest emitter and Africa's highest emitter, with an estimated 4.79 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. We are above the global average, at 4.7 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2019. 

Still, our cumulative emissions rank lower. Recent figures show that the United States is responsible for 25% of historical emissions, [far more] than any other country. By comparison, the African continent accounts for three percent of historical emissions. A report by anti-poverty organisation ONE.ORG confirms that Africa - a continent that accounts for less than 18% of the world's population- accounts for roughly four percent of global carbon emissions. 

Pleasingly, South Africa's energy system is moving toward cleaner options, even though in the short term, it continues to be largely dependent on fossil fuels. 

But it's not all bad news; over the past year, several developments have been announced in South Africa's green economy, mostly private-sector driven. President Cyril Ramaphosa announced in 2021 that the US, UK, France, Germany and the EU committed $8.5 billion to help accelerate the country's transition to a green economy. As part of his efforts to reduce emissions, President Ramaphosa said the country would continue to support the deployment of renewable technologies in the energy mix. 

Declining cost of renewables 

The good news is that South Africa has a sustained declining cost of renewables. The renewable energy sector is poised to contribute more to the energy mix, as demonstrated by the current government’s 10-point energy plan to end/minimise load-shedding. The Plan includes doubling the new generation capacity procured through Bid Window 6 for wind and solar power from 2 600 MW to 5 200 MW. South Africa began the rollout of privately produced renewables in 2011 

The government renewables purchase programme has launched 112 energy projects, adding approximately 6422MW to the national grid and resulting in an investment of R202 billion in the South African economy. 

READ | OPINION: Matshidiso Lencoasa: A human rights' centered response to the climate question

To put it into perspective, though state power utility Eskom has procured 6422 MW, only 3 876 MW are currently connected to the grid. The sixth bid window is now open and is looking to add 2 600 MW. So let's say that, optimistically, [if] all sustainable production comes online next year – that would add up to 9022 MW by 2023 when the country needs nearly 60 000 MW to function. 

Not all is lost; the country has the 96MW Jasper Solar Power Plant (the largest in Africa). Launched in 2014 and it can generate 180 GWh of renewable energy annually. There is also a productive wind farm, the Kouga Wind Farm, which delivers 80 megawatts of grid-connected capacity, among others. 

Opportunities from green jobs

Then there's the R1.3 billion Ngodwana Mill in Mpumalanga; the project uses biomass recovered from surrounding plantations and screens waste material from the mill production process. The power plant burns up to 35 tons per hour of biomass in a boiler to generate steam and drive a turbine to generate electricity. The plant, owned by Sappi, already supplies Eskom with surplus energy. 

Climate change mitigation measures pose a particular challenge to South Africa's social justice and employment prospects. While there are opportunities to create new green jobs, residents of Mpumalanga province, which relies on fossil fuels and has few economic diversification options, may lose their livelihoods. As a result, tension is simmering. Fortunately, the principle of Just Transition is included in South Africa's Nationally Determined Contribution (also known as the climate pledge), demonstrating the country's commitment to incorporating a social dimension into its climate action.

A just transition entails abandoning fossil fuels and sharing the benefits with all. The environment and health will improve as we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and new jobs will be created. This allows affected communities to transition at a low cost and benefit from a more climate-resilient economy. While government action is critical in addressing the social aspects of climate change, a just transition requires widespread support and commitment at all levels.

- Mapi Mhlangu is a consultant for The ONE Campaign and a Danida Fellow for “Reporting from the African frontline of the global climate crisis".

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