Surely, no price is high enough to save the humanity?
Outside a cabal of climate change denialists, we are all in agreement that something needs to be done. But where there is clearly less agreement is about how much it will cost to enact this change and who will cover these bills.
As governments all over the world shift from the easier task of talking about climate change and setting targets of achieving net zero, and begin the far trickier part of actually enacting legislation to achieve this, the costs are starting to mount. Many voters, it would seem, are far from willing to cover the increases to living expenses that preventing the worst effects of climate change entail.
The unfortunate reality is that politicians have embraced a kind of half-truth about climate change as a way of answering this question. They have convinced voters that not only is the journey to net zero good for the planet, but it will also be good for the economy. The jobs of the future, so we are told, will be green jobs.
This could, in some respects, be true. Let us all hope that the future is full of green jobs. However, it obscures some rather less palatable complexities and realities. The transitional costs away from fossil fuels will be expensive. The taxpayer will eventually have to pick up the tab. As this reality kicks in, resistance from people who want to hang on to their gas boiler or diesel vehicle will build.
The academic and climate activist Matt Goodwin has predicted that resistance to climate change will be the seeds of the next populist revolt, once leaders and voters tire of moaning about immigrants. As he points out, the British public overwhelmingly supports net zero aspirations. But this drops to only 16% when the transition involves an increase in household expenses.
U-turn on environmental policies
It is therefore unsurprising to see politicians start to subtly backtrack on environmental goals and legislation. Much has been made of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recent U-turn on environmental policies. However, the pressures he bowed to are similarly affecting leaders across the planet.
Examples abound across the developed world. The “yellow vest” protests in France were kicked off by an increase in fuel duties as part of President Emmanuel Macron’s green agenda, which led to his eventually relenting and cutting them. Germany, once seen as a poster child for the energy transition, has backtracked on policies to outlaw gas boilers after a popular backlash and surge in support from the climate denialist far-right party Alternative für Deutschland.
And if these are the debates in the developed world, the discussions in emerging markets will be even more pronounced.
Until now, the stance of South Africa and many across the developing world has been simple. It is inarguable that the majority of the carbon stock which has been emitted by humanity until now is from the developed world. Why then should the developing world have to cover the costs of the consequences of someone else’s growth, when surely it is its turn to achieve the same level of progress?
President Cyril Ramaphosa has been adamant on this point, extending the begging bowl and chastising the rich world in numerous speeches, most recently at the UN.
However compelling and convenient this argument might be, it obscures the reality that if the rich world is having trouble funding its own energy transition, it is unrealistic to expect it to fund everyone else’s too.
Environment Minister Barbara Creecy is clearly more pragmatic on this point, saying in an interview that developing nations should stop “harping on” about money that has been pledged by the developed world and make plans for the future. Kenyan President William Ruto has caught on to this, telling the UN General Assembly that “we as Africa have come to the world not to ask for alms, charity or handouts”.
It is not difficult to understand why the two African presidents have such different views on the matter. Kenya already generates 87% of its power from renewables, whereas coal-rich South Africa has the third-highest per capita carbon emissions in the world.
Regardless of who funds it, solutions must be found. The battle to ensure that society will indeed make the sacrifices needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change must continue to be fought. It will be increasingly tough to make the case to all voters as the costs and effects on livelihoods rise, in both the developed and developing worlds.
But that should not give us reason to pause or reconsider the drive to achieve planetary net zero. The eventual cost of not achieving this – certain destruction – is simply too disastrous even to contemplate. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.