Opinionista Jenny Hall 15 May 2020

The climate crisis and environmental justice must take centre stage in the coming New World

Covid-19 has forced a shift in mindsets across the world, and it’s this same acute shift that needs to be applied to our environmental crises.

It is only a few short months since environmental issues such as climate change featured regularly in the news and arguably with a prominence that they had never enjoyed before. Greta Thunberg became a household name as she and her supporters raised awareness about the impending climate change crisis.

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In the lead-up to COP-25, the United Nations meeting which was held in December to advance climate change responses, world leaders were urged to step up their levels of ambition in responding to climate change by the UN Climate Change’s Executive Secretary. Thousands of people added their voices to this appeal as they protested outside the meeting halls, and in vast gatherings around the world. Our own Environment Minister, Barbara Creecy, agreed with the calls when she said: “Science is sending a clear message that we face a climate emergency and that everybody needs to act with a renewed sense of urgency.”

Despite these calls, COP-25 did not result in meaningful progress. Government leaders were simply unwilling to take the hard decisions that would necessarily and significantly change our world.

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Scarcely a month later, the Covid-19 pandemic began dominating news headlines. Since then we have seen that responses to Covid-19 have resulted in what was unthinkable a few short months ago during COP-25. Economies have been shut down across the globe. Health systems have been stretched to their outermost limits.

Closer to home, largely supportive responses to the government’s swift decision to implement the initial lockdown were nevertheless met with concerns about the economic impact and food security. These concerns were not without merit – a survey of nearly 20,000 people by the Human Sciences Research Council shows that during lockdown approximately two-thirds of township residents and nearly a quarter of informal settlement residents had no money for food.  

Reports such as these make the different experiences between rich and poor South Africans horrifyingly visible. The president’s indication that South Africa cannot be allowed to return to pre-pandemic ways and that we need to forge a new economy, therefore, ought to be welcomed. Ironically, the pandemic has created an opportunity to reset our thinking, not to return to business-as-usual and to tackle inequality. However, if this new approach is going to result in meaningful and systemic change, environmental issues must be part of the thinking and design.

The Covid-19 situation is the most immediate reminder of the consequences of taking a leisurely approach to addressing environmental issues. Early statistics show the aggravated effects of the virus experienced by people living in polluted cities and linkages between poverty and higher death rates. This is in addition to the fact that an underlying environmental issue lies at the heart of the outbreak – namely the destruction of habitats.

Before the pandemic, warnings of the urgent need to implement far-reaching and dramatic changes to our current economic and development approaches had been made by scientists such as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel made it clear in their report last year that if dire impacts on people across the planet are to be avoided, the time for treating environmental issues as negotiable has long passed and that the window for implementing responses is urgently narrow.

The challenge of raising the environment as a priority in the new economy called for by the president lies in the need to respond differently to traditional attitudes. Although mainstreaming the environment into economic and social decision-making has been a requirement of international law for nearly 30 years, the facts show that we are a long way off this being a reality. In practice, environmental issues are kept in the margins of political priorities. Tenacious narratives such as environmental issues being considered a luxury which developing countries cannot afford remain, and need to be debunked as soon as possible. Claims that addressing environmental concerns in a time of crisis presents a serious obstacle to economic recovery and development need to be similarly resisted. If the discourse doesn’t change, then neither will the outcome. The poor will continue to experience more environmental hardship because of their economic status.

At a time when the controversial ban on cigarette sales remains in force because of the respiratory implications, it may also be a good time to take other causes that impact the respiratory system just as seriously. Eskom’s coal-burning power stations, for example, are known to cause respiratory illness and premature deaths, often among the poorer of our society.

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Daily Maverick reported that a study commissioned by Eskom itself reveals that its emissions result in more than 300 premature deaths a year. Studies by NGOs such as Greenpeace estimate that the annual deaths are closer to 1,850, a number substantially higher than the total deaths from Covid-19 in South Africa so far.

Notwithstanding this, Eskom has made various applications seeking to delay compliance with stricter air emission limits. It is also currently appealing a compliance notice issued by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to its Kendal power station for non-compliance with its existing emission limits. This even though Kendal falls in a priority area because of high levels of pollution which present a danger to health.

Holding Eskom to higher account in the context of its financial difficulties and attempts to keep the lights on highlights the enormity of the shift that is required in approaching our economy differently. It will test the government’s ability to resist immediate economic factors trumping environmental performance and finding new ways of making the seemingly impossible possible. If it succeeds, the foundations for building a truly equal society can begin to emerge.

In many ways, the virus has forced politicians across the globe to do what they have been reluctant to do in the environmental context, namely take drastic and far-reaching action. Responding to environmental crises requires a widespread change in behaviour. The Covid-19 situation has demonstrated that people can and have changed their behaviour.

As South Africa contemplates what the post-pandemic economy will look like, it is an ideal time for the government to engage with this potential for change and to bring environmental considerations into the mainstream through its decision-making. Forging the new economy without it going hand in hand with realising environmental justice for all can only perpetuate the disproportionate environmental burden that the poor currently experience. DM

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