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Climate change as a collective action problem: Has COVID-19 taught us anything?

In November, the international community is gathering in Glasgow at COP26 to: “Accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

The COP26 programme highlights goals that require collective global action:


  • Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
  • Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
  • Mobilise finance
  • Work together to deliver

COVID-19 is a crisis that we need to respond to on a “species scale”. Climate change is another “species level” threat that requires collective action at a scale that has not yet been achieved. This collective action will cross borders, states, regions and continents for the threat to be successfully averted. 

A quick glance at the WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard vaccination rates per nation however reveals a deep inequality in the access to, and rate of, vaccinations by country globally. 

This does not bode well for a “species level” response to climate change or attaining the fourth COP26 goal of working together. Climate change may not yet be perceived as dramatic a shock to the global system as the pandemic, but its adverse effects are evidently increasing global shock events like droughts, floods and wildfires. 

In short, the global climate change response could do well to tap more into the philosophy of Ubuntu. According to The African Philosophy of Ubuntu in South African Education: “Ubuntu is a capacity in South African culture that expresses compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony and humanity in the interests of building and maintaining a community with justice and mutual caring.”

These principles inform many definitions of a green economy, structured to increase prosperity in ways that are socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable

Partnerships and collaborations, local and international, are the key to enabling the removal of barriers to green economy growth, which is central to reaching emission reduction targets.

Over the past 10 years GreenCape, a PBO, has focussed on growing the green economy in South Africa, leveraging an ecosystem of partners to unblock systems and overcome barriers, thereby contributing to attracting more than R42 billion worth of investment, creating more than 19 000 jobs in the green economy. The sectors that GreenCape works in include energy, water, sustainable agriculture and circular economy (including industrial symbiosis), with cross-cutting projects that also focus on green finance, skills development and alternative service delivery. 

GreenCape’s COP26 observer status is an opportunity to showcase local green economy growth investment opportunities in the context of the global dialogue. The newly established Mpumalanga Green Cluster Agency will also be represented at COP26, sharing its recently published green economy market intelligence about green economy opportunities in this strategic national energy and industrial region. As is stated in South Africa First Nationally Determined Contribution Under the Paris Agreement (updated September 2021): “South Africa is also fortunately blessed with abundant renewable energy resources, and developments in the economics of renewable energy technologies over the last decade are very favourable to low-carbon development in the country to maximize benefits and minimize adverse impacts on communities, workers and the economy … Programmes to achieve this will require climate finance and other forms of support provided to developing countries as specified in Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the Paris Agreement.” 

There is an intentionality required to support the “business of green”. 

South Africa has a highly unequal society and in many ways is a microcosm of the inequality that is experienced globally. This microcosm in South Africa provides an opportunity to work towards real green economy solutions. South Africa has many of the problems that need to be solved co-located with sophisticated financial markets, legal systems and a robust civil society. These are the perfect conditions of a test-bed for innovation and new solutions to combat climate change in the developing world. 

With global partners already working towards utility scale solutions in energy and water in South Africa, there is a strong opportunity for SMMEs to consider South Africa as the best place to develop and test technology and products that can address and solve the developing world’s green economy challenges like energy insecurity, water scarcity and stressed municipal waste management services. 

Through collaborations, partnerships and initiatives like the International Cleantech Network, the Green Outcomes Fund, NBI’s Climate Finance Accelerator and the Solar Impulse Foundation’s 1 000 efficient solutions label, GreenCape and many South African SMMEs are already working closely with national and international partners to support and match-make SMMEs so that cleantech innovation can scale globally. These collaborations, partnerships and initiatives are making a contribution to the species level effort required to combat, and ameliorate the worst impacts, of climate change, and illustrate the power and impact that can be realised against the COP26 goal “Work together to deliver” when there is true global collaboration and commitment. DM/OBP

This article is published in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, in support of a green social market economy for South Africa: socially inclusive, resource-efficient, low carbon, decentralised, competitive, and with a thriving SMME sector.


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