Opinionista Saliem Fakir 3 July 2019

Our Burning Planet: A Green New Deal for South Africa?

A carbon tax here, a few renewables there and more green buildings is hardly going to make a dent on what is clearly a warmed-up world.

There is a question mark in the headline precisely because whatever new Green Deal there was in the making in South Africa has come to a standstill. Elements of it were contained in the National Growth Plan (NGP), the National Development Plan (NDP), the Green Fund run by the Development Bank of SA (DBSA) and an endless caravan of policy papers, conferences and jamborees on the Green Economy that promised heaven on earth.

The fractured policy landscape tells a story of its own: the incoherence of South Africa’s own Green Deal (which is not called this by name but is pretty much what is contained in various policy programmes).

The NGP that led to a Green Accord, supported by the unions, talked about 300,000 green jobs. Perhaps the exact numbers are pointless now, given that thick dust has accumulated on these documents.

The last elections were telling because much of the politics was about winning power rather than the real issues. Personalities caught the bulk of the attention. The usual green and climate-change platitudes were more din than real. Mainstream parties had to put these platitudes out there to green their pointless manifestos.

South Africa’s green deal is best described as “start, take a spurt, stop, and restart”. A maddening display of schizophrenic or manic policy pursuits and responses to the global climate change challenge and industrial pollution in South Africa.

The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers’ Programme is still in limbo, and even if it goes ahead, Eskom and Sasol will continue to spew toxic pollutants because they keep postponing air pollution control measures, and have done so for the last decade. They have renewed their call for more exemptions.

These days we talk about a “just transition” – another canopy to hold expectations and aspirations for a green shift. I once almost choked with laughter at a Mining Phakisabecause somebody from a notable mining body was happily touting mining automation as a form of just transition.

Sometimes you have to be cynical – is all this rhetoric about a just transition/Green New Deal (GND) merely positioning in the clouds or is it landing on somebody’s head?

In fact, if one may appropriate the title of Samuel Huntington’s book, it is a case of the Clash of Civilizations: a cleaner 21st Century economy built on clean energy versus the industrial civilisation relic, this dirty fossil-fuel economy. South Africa is caught between these two worlds, but the fossil-fuel economy seems to be winning.

The recent SONA talked about climate change, but without real meaning. It was a throwaway line in a speech that is better remembered for its dreaming about bullet trains and Wakanda-like cities. Whatever the reason for a Green Deal miss in the SONA, it was telling because before SONA, the newly-minted minister of mining and energy – to cheering coal curmudgeons – declared war on renewables and pushed for deepening the use of coal.

The same minister, in the post-SONA debate, toned down the pillorying of clean energy options. It is another illustration of the clash of civilisations, and this start-stop syndrome bedevilling any shift to the green economy.

Ordinary people laughed at the idea of dream cities and bullet trains. They say fix the Metro trains because these things are simple to fix, and trains that do not work mean commuters are forced to use fuel-guzzling motor vehicles and wait unproductively in traffic jams. This knocks a few points off our GDP if you consider the lost hours of work, the fuel import bill, stress and the increase in pollution.

Fixing the Metro trains is one step closer to realising an element of a South African version of the GND. Shifting coal or others forms of truck transport to rail is another.

It is mystifying that a public resource cannot be run on time, or its assets protected in a country where the poor are burdened with so many other economic oppressions.

The GND has gained wide prominence due to its revitalisation by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The US version of the GND, which has gained considerable publicity – no doubt because Ocasio-Cortez is a media magnet herself – is a stimulus package aimed at throwing money at new clean technologies, sustainable infrastructure and other measures to address climate change.

At face value, the Ocasio-Cortez-sponsored GND Bill is no different from the Obama-era green or climate-proofing stimulus packages he instituted following the financial crisis in 2007. The ideas have been around, only the messenger is different this time.

The GND draws inspiration from the US president Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – a bold and far-reaching programme of economic reforms to curtail the excesses of capitalism, deal with high unemployment, and investment in new public infrastructure following the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal had real teeth and the rapacious capitalists hated him. The New Deal still earns venom from Libertarians who see the evil of Communism in any New Deal idea.

The problem with the GND discourse is that you can latch on to vignettes of policy shifts and investment in the green economy as if significant progress has been made. The main thesis here is to not fritter at the margins, but to commit to a new civilisational programme of action that prevents our own extinction. A carbon tax here, a few renewables there and more green buildings is hardly going to make a dent on what is clearly a warmed-up world. You just have to read about the heat-waves in Europe, the swarm of floating floes from the Arctic ice, and many other indications that we ought not to be waiting for climate change – we are already in it.

There remains a couple of questions:

What becomes of Green New Deals in the current model of financialised global economies and monetary policies designed to feed more money-making from money?

What type of political economy is needed for a radical shift from a fossil-fuel civilisation to a 21st Century society and economy?

It is unlikely that a GND will transform the status quo if the market is the end, rather than serving the common good.

The economist Jean Tirole (a Nobel Laureate), and many others like him, are asking hard questions about the purpose of economic policy. The details are contained in Tirole’s book: Economics for the Common Good.

The book questions the economics profession and postulates that if economics is not guided by the shared idea of a common good, it is an unguided missile that will reinforce the existing deleterious effects.

A GND could well lead to a jobless growth scenario because a significant element of green technology investments involves digitisation and automation. It is surprising how few GND pundits do not take up the conundrum of automation and Artificial Intelligence’s effects on jobs and income distribution in the green deal. There is a blind spot here.

In the end, economics is less about how green or black it is, but who has power to shape the flow of rents. And this is not a question of economic theory, but of politics. DM

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