Maverick Citizen: Op-ed

A village lesson on preventing a climate catastrophe

By Dave Martin 23 February 2020

A food garden in Nqileni Village. Photo by Dave Martin

With the growing awareness that we are on a collision course with catastrophic climate change, there is a growing sense of fear, hopelessness and anger. Many people are desperate to be part of the solution, but at best they implement a mix of personal lifestyle changes which have little impact on a global scale. We desperately need global carbon emissions to be decreasing rapidly but, in reality, every year our annual emissions actually increase.

In the absence of a unified climate crisis action plan, people latch on passionately to tangential issues such as banning single-use plastics – which are not unworthy causes – but will do virtually nothing to stop the approaching catastrophe.

Others talk of the need for a global, eco-socialist revolution and blame a fanatical focus on GDP growth as the true problem. They ignore the fact that there is no evidence that socialist countries emit less carbon. So far, all economic systems have sought to increase prosperity in their countries through economic growth. Socialists may spread the benefits of this growth more equitably, but they nevertheless have always chased the same economic growth that is inextricably linked to increased emissions and environmental destruction.

Go and stand in the middle of the desert that was once the Aral Sea in the former USSR. It is an unforgettable reality check that humans in every political and economic system have been happy to chase short-term economic benefits at the expense of our planet’s ecosystem.

In searching for tangible solutions it could be helpful to look at my remote corner of the Eastern Cape home to the AmaBomvana people in the Xhora Mouth Administrative Area.

Here, communities continue many of the old traditional ways of living. They build their houses from local materials using mud bricks and thatch. They grow a significant amount of their food locally and almost everyone depends solely on public transport to travel to town once a week. This part of the country has not yet been connected to the Eskom electricity grid, but each homestead has a basic government solar system that provides lights and cellphone charging.

Meat is eaten only occasionally when a (free-ranging) animal is slaughtered and eaten by the whole community on a single day. Cooking is mostly done on sustainably harvested wood fires and traditional mud huts are well insulated, making them warm in winter and cool in summer. Our social lives happen within walking distance — television is non-existent. Socialising is about face-to-face conversations around a fire or while working together in the field or the forest.

The above lifestyle generates around one ton of CO2 a person a year, which is about average for people living in the rural areas of Africa and India. One ton is also about the amount of CO2 emitted on one return flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town. One ton of CO2 is also close to the annual target that all humans need to achieve in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. In contrast, the average middle-class South African generates close to 15 tons of CO2 a year, putting them on par with environmental pariahs such as the United States of America. South Africa’s national average is improved to a still-excessive 10 tons per capita by virtue of the fact that we have millions of South Africans living simple, traditional lives in deep rural areas like the Eastern Cape.

Simply put, if everyone on Earth lived like our community, we would not have to worry about climate change. One could thus say that the solutions to our sustainable future will not emerge from the brain of Elon Musk, but can be found in the ancient practices of our traditional communities.

But, sadly, the above is not the whole story.

The reality is that another word that describes a lifestyle emitting just one ton of CO2 per year is “poverty.” Our community is desperate to be connected to Eskom’s filthy energy grid — people have died in protests demanding that our region be electrified. And this is totally understandable. Only a naive romantic celebrates having to wash all your laundry by hand at the river.

Fridges, stoves, dishwashing machines, hot-water cylinders, televisions, computers, heaters… these are all things that have liberated humans — particularly women — from back-breaking, mind-numbing, menial work. Cooking on a fire is fun when doing the occasional braai on the weekend, but it destroys lungs and eyes when done on a daily basis, particularly on rainy days when fires must be made indoors.

Gathering firewood is also back-breaking work. If everyone here had the money, they would buy a car tomorrow to avoid riding in the back of a cramped bakkie-taxi for hours on end, bumping along terrible gravel roads, hunched over with 14 others on a wooden bench under a low fibreglass canopy piled high with groceries.

Even the act of growing one’s own food is more often celebrated by people who at best might grow a little salad and spinach as a hobby rather than those who have experienced the weekly menial labour of growing all the food that a family needs. The low consumption of meat is not by choice — it is due to a lack of refrigeration which forces meat to be consumed within a day or two of purchase or slaughter.

Globally, one of the most accepted measures of human progress is the Human Development Index (HDI) and, without exception, as humans lives and HDI scores have improved, so too have their CO2 emissions increased. No matter the economic or political system — no country of significant size has been able to break this trend. Everyone in the global middle class (broadly defined as people able to cover their basic needs of food, shelter and clothing plus extras like a TV, fridge, computer and perhaps a car/motorbike) got there by polluting the atmosphere at an unsustainable rate.

Yet if we are to prevent climate change we will have to find a new path out of poverty. And the crisis we face means that we need to confront some hard truths with facts rather than wishful, wistful thinking.

While the right of the political spectrum seems to be debating whether the laws of physics (and therefore climate change) is an actual thing, the political left seems to be lost in daydreams of romantic, self-sustaining villages sustained by circular economies on micro-grids. And yet everyone keeps emitting their 10-plus tons of CO2 every year, with no realistic, tangible plan on the table as to how we are actually going to stop a climate catastrophe. At best it is always “they” who are to blame and “they” who must act. “They” are the companies, the government, the Americans, the Chinese, the 1%, the bad guys. 

It is time for a reality check. If you are between the ages of 30 and 60 today, then in 2050 you will be a pensioner strolling down the road in your golden years. The most likely scenario is that we will continue on our current carbon emissions trajectory which means that a climate catastrophe will be in full force. And as you stroll down the road, the youth of 2050 will be spitting in your face as a representative of the “Generation of Shame” who, despite being given all the scientific evidence, chose to chase short-term economic prosperity at the expense of the planet and future generations.

We will be hated like no generation before us. Our golden years will be years of shame as we try to justify to our grandchildren and the hundreds of millions of climate refugees why our social media timelines from 2020 were filled with trivial outrages over who said what about whom.

So, what to do? What does a sensible, ethical person do when faced with a problem of this magnitude?

First, as South Africans, we need to move away from the idea that off-grid and micro-grids are the solution. If you believe that South Africa is going to emerge from the political and economic challenges it currently faces, then Eskom’s financial and operational problems have to be solved. It is always cheaper and cleaner to produce energy at scale. Some of South Africa’s most powerful wealth redistribution systems are our electricity and water grids which force wealthier consumers to subsidise free services for the poor.

If the wealthy choose to become self-sufficient with solar systems and boreholes, then the poor will have to pay enormous amounts for energy and water to fund the entire grid themselves.

Similarly, we need to accept that the vast majority of us will live in dense cities. We can make our existing rural communities self-sustaining, but it is totally unrealistic to imagine our giant cities depopulating into millions of tiny villages in the short time we have to act. In fact, the migration trend is in the opposite direction. There is no realistic future where the average reader is going to grow a significant amount of their own food. Rural farmers (large and small) will make a living doing that.

You will get water from better-managed dams and purification systems. Electric buses will transport you around town as will electrified Ubers and scooters for shorter journeys. Electricity will go up in price as it is expensive to store the cheap energy generated by solar and wind so that our cities can continue to operate on windless nights. Ships and planes will need to use a clean fuel — hydrogen, perhaps — to allow travel and trade to continue.

Meat will be produced in new ways and may not come from live animals at all. A less emotional, more holistic and scientific approach to farming will be needed. In fact, every aspect of human life that leads to CO2 emissions will need to change. This new way of living cannot be a far-off future. It needs to be a global norm by the time today’s babies are finishing high school and it must become the shortest, easiest path out of poverty for the global poor. And there is only one mechanism that can make all of the above happen at a global scale in a short time:

An aggressive global carbon tax.

The most effective tool we have for changing the consumption patterns of people is the price things cost. The problem we face currently is that the price we pay for things does not take into account the actual cost to the planet and thus to us.

A flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town does not cost just the R1,000 spent on the ticket which covers the fuel and running costs incurred by the airline. The huge amount of carbon emissions made during that flight is treated as if it is no cost at all. And so our airlines have no incentive to invest in new technologies to move away from polluting fossil fuels.

We will keep buying cheaper tickets and the airlines will keep spewing out CO2 and so we will all keep heading for our climate catastrophe. But if there was a carbon tax of R750 on that ton of CO2 they emitted, pushing up the ticket price to R1,750, these airlines would see a sharp drop in sales and an enormous business opportunity would exist for the companies currently inventing hydrogen-powered aeroplane engines that have no carbon emissions.

Every airline using that clean hydrogen engine would not have to add the carbon tax to their ticket price. Their tickets would thus be much cheaper than the fossil-fuel-burning competition and they would put the old technology (and fossil fuel airlines) out of business.

In the same way, electric bullet trains might prove a cheaper, cleaner alternative (if powered by clean energy). There is currently no other mechanism but a carbon tax that can promote this type of climate-saving innovation in the little time we have left.

The above scenario would be repeated with every product and service we use to ensure that we pay the actual price (including the environmental cost) of things we consume and in this way channel our consumption patterns towards less expensive, low-carbon products. In this scenario the cheapest brands of chocolates, biscuits, soap and so on would also be the most environmentally friendly. This in turn will accelerate the pace of corporate research and innovation in low-carbon alternatives as heavy polluters will simply be priced out of the market.

We would all already be driving electric cars if we paid the true cost of petrol cars. We think petrol cars are cheaper because the true cost of their emissions will only be paid in 2050 when higher taxes, enormous insurance premiums and higher prices for everything will be required to cope with regular and endlessly worsening climate catastrophes.

A complaint often heard about the carbon tax is “why should WE pay? It’s the government or companies that should pay”. This betrays a misconception of our economy: a government only has one source of funds which is its taxpaying citizens (or loans repaid by taxpayers). If you increase taxes on a company, then that expense will filter down as a higher price charged to the consumer.

However, while the carbon tax, like all taxes, will be paid by consumers, this need not cost them anything as this tax revenue could be returned to them as an annual government tax rebate/grant. This is exactly what happens in Canada: each household receives a cheque from the government of about R5,000 annually which is their share of what’s collected from the carbon tax.

The good news is that carbon taxes are now being implemented across the globe including South Africa. The challenge is that in most countries the tax rate has been set so low that it cannot significantly change consumption and production patterns.

In South Africa, our carbon tax (after allowances) has been set at a ludicrously low R6 to R46 a ton. But in countries like Sweden, where it has been imposed correctly, the results are as expected: lower CO2 emissions (amid a growing economy) and a move away from environmentally damaging products and services that have become much more expensive.

The dark days of climate apathy are ending. The growing sense of fear about catastrophic climate change is excellent news. We need to harness this fear to force our governments to implement the only viable solution — an aggressive global carbon tax. So let’s continue to share the horrors of the droughts, floods, forest fires and melting glaciers. But let’s share the solution at the same time. 

Make no mistake, we are going to pay for carbon emissions: either in advance through a carbon tax that averts a climate catastrophe or during the chaos of the catastrophe itself. MC

Dave Martin lives and works in Nqileni village and is the co-founder of the rural development NGO, the Bulungula Incubator. He writes in his personal capacity.

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