Our Burning Planet

Opinionista

The knowledge of the ‘desperately sick planet’ that ought to be ‘in our bones’ but isn’t

mm

Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

We need silver linings, but where are they? Our knowledge of climate change demands that we use it to ensure the future of our species. But those who lead public debates on the grave challenges we face too frequently ignore the climate change impacts of ill-considered ‘solutions’. 

Oh, how I long to be able to give a fulsome endorsement to your end-of-year banner headline that proclaimed “even the darkest storm clouds have silver linings”. I’ve often referred to ‘silver linings’ in my own writings but feel unable to do so now.

My conclusion to a recent Daily Maverick article was:

We cannot knowingly just accept that today’s young people have a future likely to be hostile to human life. We cannot knowingly just accept that the children of today’s young people have a future in which that hostility is guaranteed. People have the unique power of consciousness. We use it mundanely when wearing raincoats when it rains. Our knowledge of climate change demands that we use it to ensure the future of our species.

The “we” I more specifically had in mind are the 25% of a population who reportedly form the critical threshold for effective action. Yet, the sober truth seems to be that climate change and related issues are not a constituent part of the consciousness of the people I’d consider belonging to the South African 25% of change-makers.  

In what follows, I name individuals and media houses only to illustrate my disquiet. I would be far less despairing if they were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Consider, for instance, a recent radio programme on SAfm, hosted by Stephen Grootes who anchors SAfm’s flagship show ‘SAfm Sunrise’ and a number of TV programmes, and is also a long-time writer for the Daily Maverick. The programme focussed on the disastrous collapse of South Africa’s railway system — both the passenger and freight services of Prasa and Transnet respectively. The challenge was what to do about it.

Grootes first speaker, David Williams, a former editor of the Financial Times, authored a recent report, Why There Are So Many Trucks On The Road And So Few Trains On The Tracks which attracted much media attention. It was the basis for Grootes’ Mediated Conversation on 15 December 2021 on the future of rail in South Africa. The key proposition Grootes wanted to discuss was whether a return to diesel locomotion was the solution to the rampant industrial-scale theft of overhead electric cables. Left unsaid was that diesel engines emit smog-forming oxides of nitrogen that contribute to unhealthy ozone levels and more than 40 toxic compounds, and large quantities of global warming pollutants.

Williams strongly opposed the idea of going diesel. Not only would it mean writing off “massive investments” in the electrification infrastructure but there were also existing contracts for the supply of new electric locomotives. Moreover, the return to diesel would, for him, mean a victory for the people responsible for the massive theft.

Another speaker was Ali Motala, Transnet’s General Manager for Strategy. He acknowledged that a short-term “compelling” case could be made for diesel. Against this, however, were “broader considerations”, such as the fact that diesel had to be imported, unlike electricity which was generated locally. But he was at least aware of ‘broader considerations’.  

Climate change, by contrast, was absent from the entirety of the Mediated Conversation. Yet only a month earlier COP26 had made climate change headline news around the world, including South Africa. Making this omission even more significant is that David Williams mentioned that Transnet’s CEO, Portia Derby, supported the idea of going diesel. What is so striking was his selective memory of what Derby actually said. Derby did indeed support going diesel, but he omitted to say that Derby, speaking shortly before COP26, referred to de-electrification as a “humdinger of a problem”. South Africa wanted to present its green face at COP26, yet, as she explained:

You would ideally want to have a system which is the least polluting as possible, but we have a choice — we either have a reliable system or we have an electric system and if we stay with an electric system we know that we will not be able to drive reliability”.

One need not agree with her either/or understanding of the ‘humdinger of a problem’ and she seemingly forgot that electricity in South Africa is overwhelmingly generated by heavily CO2-emitting coal. But she was at least aware of transport being a major contributor to climate change. Transport accounts for 10.8% of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions, which places transport as the second-largest contributor, with the energy sector being the largest. Moreover, according to the Government’s Green Transport Strategy: 2018-50, transport is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas in South Africa. (Transport is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas in the US, at about 29%.)

Awareness of transport’s impact on climate change was similarly lost on the Mail & Guardian, in its annual Report Card on members of the Cabinet. Climate change doesn’t figure in the newspaper’s assessments of the two Ministers responsible for transport [Mail & Guardian, 15 December 2021].  Besides the Minister of Transport, there is also the Minister of Public Enterprises who is responsible for Transnet and the particularly climate-unfriendly SAA.

And then there’s Judge Dennis Davis. Like Stephen Grootes’ Mediated Conversion, his TV programme Judge for Yourself, on 23 December 2021, was inspired by David Williams’ report. Climate change was never mentioned in his wide-ranging interview with the Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula.

Daily Maverick writer Richard Poplak is, unfortunately, mistaken when he says that “hanging over all of us is the spectre of climate change, the knowledge in our bones that the planet is desperately sick”. The reality is that many among us are all too blithely ignoring the spectre that should indeed be giving us pause.

While climate change was absent from Dennis Davis’ interview with Fikile Mbalula, the near-total collapse of the rail system figured prominently. In his eagerness to reassure an openly sceptical judge, Mbalula made repeated references to a multitude of current transport plans guaranteed to fix virtually everything — and by 2024 no less. Unfortunately, the Minister seems to have forgotten the major transport plans introduced in the earlier days of the new South Africa. Climate change was part of these plans.

Most tellingly of all, he appears to have buried his Department’s, previously mentioned, Green Transport Strategy for South Africa: 2018-2050, that was made public in June 2019. Could this be because it undermines his timeline of 2024? After all, the Green Transport Strategy (GTS) tells us that it intends “driving the goals” of yet another buried plan, this time the National Transport Master Plan 2050 (Natmap 2050) of 2016. In terms of timelines, it is worth recalling that this Master Plan was first commissioned in 2005 and, although “finalised” in 2010/11, was submitted to Cabinet only in 2013. It then waited until October 2016 before finally receiving Cabinet approval.

Be that as it may, the GTS, noting that road transport is responsible for 91.2% of total transport greenhouse gas emissions, concludes:

“This justifies a focus on immediate and targeted interventions around road transport to effect a significant reduction of emissions in the transport sector as a whole. Therefore, one of the main drives of the implementation of the GTS will be to initiate immediate interventions in this sector to directly combat the emissions.”

Combating the emissions most effectively means getting vehicles off the roads, beginning with taxis. Not only are they the single largest mode of transport — transporting 68% of all commuters daily despite being the most unpopular form of transport for both their passengers and other road users — but there is no rational basis for this taxi dominance in any integrated transport system. Climate change just compounds the already dire situation. Taxis, which emerged during apartheid to help fill the public transport void, now dominate for BEE reasons, not transport ones. Richard Poplak alludes to a secondary reason: the taxis cartels are “Mafiosi dressed up as minivan drivers”.

It is clear from the exchanges between Dennis Davis and Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula that taxis — “coffins on wheels” in the descriptive words of a former transport minister, Dullah Omar — are here to stay. What is similarly clear from the disastrous state of both the passenger and freight railway system is that increasingly congested roads are the foreseeable future. Not only is there no longer talk about the substantial return of road traffic to rail — the GTS promised 30% of freight and 20% of passenger transport — but there’s no longer meaningful talk about a rationally integrated, public-prioritised, transport system that additionally addresses climate change. Climate change is plainly not part of current transport talk. Climate change seems to be acknowledged only for those infrequent occasions when it is an explicit agenda item.

What we are left with is a reminder that South Africa is the home of great plans and poor practice. The plethora of transport plans include the absurdity of those that commit the Department of Transport to implement previously agreed plans, as we’ve seen with the GTS pledging itself to implement the goals of the Natmap 2050. This is pure symbolic policy, to use Jonathan Jansen’s apt term for policies that, at best, have noble but unrealisable intentions and, at worst, create the illusionary comfort of a coherent strategy, along with a plan of action. 

Just consider: The ANC fought the first democratic election of 1994 on the basis of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). Among the RDP’s many transport provisions are the following:

An effective publicly-owned passenger transport system must be developed, integrating road, rail and air transportation … A future transport policy must promote coordinated, safe, affordable public transport as a social service … Given the need for increased mobility and the cost and environmental impact of accommodating the private motorist, the future emphasis must be on the provision of safe, convenient, affordable public transport.

Legislation giving effect to this base document began with the Green and White Papers on National Transport Policy of 1996. These policies re-emerged in the National Development Plan (NDP) of 2011. The NDP overflows with commitments such as:

  • Public transport infrastructure and systems, including the renewal of the commuter rail fleet, supported by enhanced links with road-based services;
  • More reliable and affordable public transport and better coordination between various modes of transport; and
  • The proportion of people who use public transport for regular commutes will expand significantly. By 2030, public transport will be user-friendly, less environmentally damaging, cheaper and integrated or seamless.

The Alternative Information and Development Centre published a second edition of its One Million Climate Jobs booklet in 2016. It concluded a chapter on the link between climate change, transport and jobs, with an observation by Professor Jackie Walters:

“For many years the South African government has put forward policies and strategies to improve and promote public transport. Despite this, very little has changed over the last 30 years.”

Walters’ observation was made in 2014. Very little has changed since then. Except for climate change, that is.

Climate change gets progressively worse as climate science gets progressively even more assured in its forecasts. Yet, climate change does not offer even the comfort of symbolic policies. COP26 has come and gone leaving us only with still more “blah, blah and blah”, which is Greta Thunberg’s dismissal of all the COPs.

Instead of proper and effective policies for addressing climate change, we have ever-increasing storm clouds. We applauded human ingenuity and the science behind the $10-billion James Webb Space Telescope that was launched on Xmas day to explore the origins of the universe. Yet that science is, mutatis mutandis, the same science enabling us to understand the cause of the storm clouds heralding the end of human life on planet earth. Knowing what needs to be done to preserve human life makes our inaction all the more difficult to comprehend. How can we knowingly condemn our species to suicide?

We desperately need silver linings, but where are they? Rebecca Davis, who assured Daily Maverick readers of silver linings to even the darkest storm clouds, urged us to squint if we have difficulty seeing the light. I’ve squinted … and squinted … and then came the news that Desmond Tutu had just died. In death, he gives a spark to my atheist optimism of the will. History is not made by great people. But great people help make history. Let’s not wait passively for the next Desmond Tutu. Just knowing that others might take his place is good cause to keep going. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 4

  • Speaking only for myself, my mind does not have the bandwidth to encompass our abysmal government and socio-economic mess, worrying about my future income, and still concern itself with climate change.
    On the latter, my intuition from a lifetime’s learning is better not stated.

  • Desmond Tutu had many wise words of hope. I like this one and try to apply it where I can. “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Note: “overwhelm” not “can overwhelm.” My particular area of interest is promotion of healthy family life, an equally difficult and neglected objective. But families are everywhere, the core of society in every aspect of life, from home to work to leisure. It’s where little bits of good like “reuse, reduce, recycle” can become a groundswell to overwhelm the world. My focus is “Our World, a Family of Families.” Any support is welcome.

  • Hmmm. One diesel loco pulling 50 x 30T on a smooth rail vs 50 diesel horses pulling 30T each on the roads with all the rest of us. I vote for the diesel loco, at least until we can one day leave electrical cables installed overnight and still find them there in the morning.

  • Post Covid, we were promised a new paradigm. We would rethink the way we live. I see absolutely no evidence of that ! The world is back to obsessing with Growth, mainly because the population is increasing at such a rate and all the world’s citizens aspire to American living standards. Transport is just a small part of it. Awareness and understanding of climate change is sadly lacking. All of us can do something by reducing our carbon footprint. If all 8 Billion of us produce 1kg less CO2 per day that is almost 3 Bill tons per year.( 1 kg CO2 is the equivalent of driving a 4*4 vehicle 4 or 5 kms). There is a satirical movie on Netflix at present (Don’t Look Up) which parodies human’s approach to an impending catastrophe ( an asteroid strike on earth). This is our attitude to climate change. I’m glad I won’t be here to see the end of civilisation as we know it when temperatures are at least 2.7C higher, sea levels are 2 to 3m higher and hundreds of millions of refugees will be looking for somewhere to stay.