Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

To recover from Covid-19, South Africa needs ‘Green New Deal’

By Alex Lenferna & Jennifer Wells 24 April 2020
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GRANGEMOUTH, SCOTLAND - NOVEMBER 1: BP's Huge oil refinery complex continues it's 24 hour production of petroleum and gas, November 1, 2004 at Grangemouth in central Scotland. Continuing instability in the Middle East is propping the price of crude oil at close to $50 a barrel, impacting in turn on global economies. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

South Africa is being urged to tackle the Covid-19 and climate crises with a single strategy — transforming its economy along more just, inclusive and environmentally friendly lines.

Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, South Africa was in its second recession in the space of a few years — which came on top of deepening inequality and poverty. The South African Reserve Bank has forecast the country’s GDP to contract by 6.2% in 2020 – but even that figure may end up being an underestimation, with all predictions being marked by “extreme uncertainty”, according to the International Monetary Fund’s chief economist.

In the short-term, the government needs to adequately resource public health services and put in place measures to prevent people from buckling under the impact of economic blows from Covid-19. Examples from stimuli packages in other countries include cash grants, wage cover, food packages, extended paid sick leave, childcare, rent and mortgage holidays, and much more.

On Tuesday night President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a major stimulus and recovery programme worth R500 billion — which will help fund such measures.

In the longer term, though, the South African economy will need a much bigger boost as, even with short-term measures in place, there is a risk that the long-term impact will be devastating.

According to the chief of the UN’s International Labour Organisation, the world faces the prospect of 195 million job losses in the next three months alone. Such an effect could push hundreds of millions more people into unemployment, underemployment and working poverty.

Towards a Longer-Term Solution

Momentum has been growing recently for governments to implement a  “Green New Deal” (GND), a major government-led programme to build a more socially and economically just, green and renewable energy-powered economy and resilient society that promotes human rights and addresses poverty and inequality. This is now needed more than ever as it would help counter the damage wrought by Covid-19.

As the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted, to keep global warming from surpassing the crucial threshold of 1.5°C, transformation across virtually all sectors of society is required. If all countries implement a GND up to the task, a UN report shows that 170 million new jobs can be created globally, nearly making up for the projected job losses from Covid-19.

Such a project can also create a more just and economically prosperous future.

A Green New Deal can significantly boost an economy and reduce healthcare costs. Research from Stanford University shows that, with renewable energy becoming increasingly cheaper than fossil fuels, a 100% renewable energy system will save the world about R200 trillion on fuel costs every year. It would also save the world a further R180 trillion every year by reducing the health and ecological effects of fossil fuel pollution.

In South Africa, studies show a renewable energy system could cut energy costs by a quarter, compared to sticking with the existing polluting coal-fired system. It would also create 200,000 more jobs, lower the cost of energy by 25%, save 196 billion litres of water per year, make the energy system more reliable and remove our biggest source of air, water and climate pollution.

Those additional 200,000 jobs are in the energy sector alone. Transforming the broader society to a zero-carbon, resilient future pushes the potential new jobs estimate above a million.

As with the Covid-19 crisis, the longer we wait to tackle the climate crisis, the worse the effects will be – and the results of delaying action on climate could be much worse in the long run.

Covert Covid-19 Operations

Heading in the opposite direction of a GND, on Day 1 of the lockdown Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe used the moment of distraction to sneak through regulation that weakens communities’ right to say no to harmful mining projects. Minister of Forestry and Fisheries and Environmental Affairs Barbara Creecy also pushed through regulations,  weakening clean air regulations, despite research showing high levels of air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors” to deaths from Covid-19.

Ramaphosa’s delay in introducing a carbon tax — as part of the Covid-19 response — also raises worries that the interests of polluting corporations will be prioritised over the health of people as we make our recovery from the pandemic. We cannot afford to bail out polluting corporations and should not use the current crisis as an excuse to worsen the climate situation and foster environmental degradation. Polluting and corrupt coal projects are already costing South Africa too much, with just Medupi and Kusile power stations projected to cost almost as much as Ramaphosa’s entire stimulus and recovery programme.  

A South African-tailored vision of a GND provides a path to a more socially and ecologically just future. Not only would it help protect human rights and tackle the devastation of a Covid-19-induced recession, it would provide a route to dealing with the intertwined climate and Eskom crises. It could tackle both immediate threats to the country and one of the biggest long-term ones at the same time.

The GND vision is not just about renewable energy and climate change. It is about building a more ecologically and socially just future that protects all people, including workers, communities and people living in poverty. It is about protecting human rights and creating a stronger social safety net with access to basic services for all. It is about a transformative and just transition to ensure that nobody is left behind.

The government needs to be pushed to invest in the health of South Africa’s people, its communities and its environment. We, the Climate Justice Coalition — a coalition of trade unions, civil society and community organisations working together on climate justice — are calling for a just recovery and a South African vision of a Green New Deal. DM/MC

Dr Alex Lenferna is a South African climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org. Jennifer Wells is a campaigner for Amnesty International South Africa. Both organisations are part of the Climate Justice Coalition.

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