Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni’s Budget speech offered some “good noises” for spending on environmental priorities.
However, pundits warned that notable in its omission was a coherent vision to support the massive climate and environmental challenges faced by Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy.
Saliem Fakir, head of the Policy and Futures Unit at the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa, WWF, noted that it was difficult to judge the Budget without the value of context.
“The speech served a function to show that the government has some control over the Budget,” he said. “But crises at troubled parastatals SAA and Eskom are beginning to eat away at the government’s ability to take any definitive position on climate. If you don’t fix the malfunctioning state, you don’t have a foundation to move on to climate issues.”
However, fingering poor policy for Mboweni’s blurred Budget focus on climate and the environment, that’s where Fakir’s sympathy ended.
“In the past five years, the government’s ability to hone a coherent position around climate change has been on the decline. In fact, it’s been in tatters.”
For her part, Creecy produced an extensive climate statement after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address earlier this month, commending his attempt to “undertake a decisive shift in the country’s energy trajectory at a time when humankind faces the greatest threat to its sustainable future, namely climate change”.
She put on a bullish face: South Africa, she insisted, would “not shrink from its responsibility to address climate change”.
“The president also promised that the Presidential Climate Change Commission will lead South Africa’s Just Transition to a low carbon, climate-resilient and sustainable society, which will leave no one behind,” she said. “It will ensure the Just Transition happens in a responsible, phased and planned manner.”
She said R1.9-billion had been earmarked in “2020 to restore wetlands, estuaries and coastal dunes to better protect built infrastructure and human settlements from storms, floods and sea level rise”.
Throwing down the gauntlet at the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, she said that “South Africa’s vulnerability to climate change is exacerbated” by, among others, its “dependency on coal-fired power generation”.
It was one of the most direct public challenges yet from within the executive to Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe’s confusing, even non-existent, leadership on the Just Transition.
More progressive notes from the Budget reaffirmed efforts to step up “bid window four of the renewable energy programme”. Boding well for clean-energy generation, he cited the “rapid decline in renewable energy prices” and that this would “give new momentum to bid window five”.
Mboweni also recommitted to “carbon tax and other measures” to “help green the economy”. He hastened to add these measures would bring in R1.75-billion over the next few months. They would also be “complemented by more focussed spending on climate change mitigation”, he said.
Plastic pollution is not just an unsightly problem. Plastic chokes wildlife, our landscapes, oceans and rivers. By reserving a special place in his Budget for South Africa’s “national flower”, Plastic bag ubiquitous, Mboweni showed that Treasury appreciates the extent of the scourge, particularly one driven by single-use plastics.
“We remain extremely concerned about plastic bags throughout the length and breadth of our country. In this regard, we have increased the plastic bag levy to 25 cents,” he said.
Announced to a lively chamber during Ramaphosa’s recent address was a project the president singled out as close to his heart — piloting the construction of environmentally advanced smart cities.
He said such a smart city was taking shape in Lanseria north of Johannesburg. It would house up to 500,000 people “within the next decade” and “be a leading benchmark for green infrastructure”.
Mboweni expanded on Ramaphosa’s favourite project by announcing that the “OR Tambo aerotropolis in Ekurhuleni is at an advanced stage of implementation and King Shaka airport in eThekwini is progressing in that direction. Cape Town shall join them soon.”
As for murmurings on sustainable agriculture, Mboweni revealed plans to “augment” soil production with the “right amount” of organic manure.
This was aimed at helping Aloe ferox, a commercially popular indigenous plant known for its therapeutic properties, to “grow to its full potential”.
Commenting on Mboweni’s Budget, Mark Swilling, sustainability professor at Stellenbosch University, was underwhelmed.
In general, he said, there was “nothing new. Most seriously of all, there’s no economic vision, which reflects the absence of a coherent macro-economic policy and theory.”
On the whole, South Africa had lost leadership on climate, said the WWF’s Fakir.
“South Africa showed significant leadership in this area post-1994, but it’s not as strong as it should be,” he cautioned. “There’s a dearth of a very strong vision for the next 15/20 years.”
Yet, he was upbeat about Creecy, whom he described as “a detail person”.
“Creecy is trying to rebuild South Africa’s presence in the climate space. She’s now also chairing the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment. I’m pretty sure she’s going to play a big role in that, but it’s difficult when the government is dealing with other kinds of corruption, austerity issues and bailouts. Climate doesn’t become the primary source of attention unless you can change it into a different narrative.”
Fakir also offered encouragement to “solid people” in Creecy’s department at large — “and I have a sense that Treasury is trying to play a bigger climate role. They’re trying to think wider than carbon tax, so that’s positive. And we might see some good stuff in the next couple of months — I’m hoping.”
Swilling noted that “the role of municipalities in renewable energy is good news. However, [Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy] Gwede Mantashe holds the key to those regulations and he is resistant.”
Like Fakir, Swilling warned that the speech was something of a lame-duck on policy, although there were some “good noises about climate change”: “Totally lacking in any sense of urgency or conceptual-strategic linkage between climate policy and economic policy.”
On the environmental front, it all felt closer to Budget-lite — a speech that may have been delivered at any time in South Africa’s recent history. One might be forgiven for thinking that organic manure sat higher on the commitment ladder than policy cultivation — even as scientific consensus under the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that governments have less than 10 years to fully disaster-proof global natural capital.
Given South Africa’s status as the most prolific carbon polluter on the continent, that is a big ask, and it will require political will to match the scale of the challenge.
That’s why Swilling was particularly concerned about Mboweni’s threat to cut costs and the public sector wage bill.
“We are now into full-on austerity at a time when we need a stimulus,” he said, but highlighted more buoyant possibilities.
“The alternative is a solution to the energy crisis that generates massive new local and international investment in decarbonisation. That will trigger the largest industrialisation since 1994.”
Mboweni concluded before the Assembly that “we will make these the best of times”, paraphrasing Charles Dickens, an author he likes to quote. However, it’s probably more apt to acknowledge that South Africa’s climate vision is still walking the Dickensian tightrope between the epoch of incredulity and the epoch of belief.
“Climate change is a de facto reality,” said Fakir, stressing the overdue importance of giving the issue due priority. “It’s not something that is abstract or too far away. It’s actually here. So these conversations have to change quite rapidly. I think arguments are still there for renewables.”
Meanwhile, the City of Cape Town appears to be steaming ahead with its plans to mitigate the impact of Eskom’s rising tariffs, combat clean-energy poverty and bring the City in line with its climate responsibilities.
In a statement Wednesday, the City said it had retrofitted 1,200km of streetlights with LED lamps. That’s a 40% energy saving compared with traditional streetlights, it said.
The statement underscored the City’s “signed commitments as part of an international pact to urgently limit global warming to below 1.5°C in line with the Paris Accord and to ensure all new and existing buildings in the city are carbon neutral by 2030 and 2050 respectively”.
Mboweni’s reaffirmation that municipalities “in good financial standing” would be allowed to procure electricity from independent power producers will do more than lighten Eskom’s woes. As Business Maverick reported this month, it will likely transform Cape Town’s renewable-energy capacity over the next few years and by all accounts, this is the big-ticket goal the City intends to pursue, with or without help from the state. DM