Meeting MDG 7: Is South Africa on Track to Nurture a Sustainable Environment?

By Michelle Pressend · 15 Nov 2008

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In this time of multiples crises often referred to as the ‘FFF’ - food, fuel and finance crisis - more than ever before, the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7, which is to ‘Ensure Environmental Sustainability’, is a critical goal to achieve.

In the planetary ecological crisis, both the North and South continue to prioritise economic growth based on conventional economic models -- the North wants to maintain its high growth rates and the South wants to play ‘catch up’. However, climate change, peak oil, high food prices, an unfair international trade regime and inequities in the global political economy, present major challenges for emerging economies to achieve the ‘catch up’ they perceive is required to grow their economies.

Faced with complex challenges, emerging economies like South Africa, Brazil, India, China and others have not only to grow their economies, but also to meet their development needs, address high levels of poverty, ensure job creation and expand their manufacturing bases. They must achieve all this without the luxury of an abundance of cheap fossil fuels.

As a result, these countries find themselves in a catch twenty-two situation when it comes to addressing development together with environmental concerns. On the one hand, they want to fulfil their economic growth objectives. On the other hand, linear economic growth and increasing energy consumption through the unremitting extraction of fossil fuels as well as production and consumption patterns dependent on these fuels, continue to result in large scale energy intensive agricultural systems, fuel guzzling cars, poor urban design and construction and the loss of biodiversity. In this context, mounting waste and pollution intensifies climate change and contributes further to environmental degradation.

One of our biggest challenges is to determine what measures our government has put in place to achieve MDG 7. The policy environment is littered with strategies, plans, methods, manuals, guides and tool-kits to address environmental management processes and outputs. These include the National Waste Management Strategy, National Sustainable Development Framework and the Long-term Mitigation Strategy as a response to Climate Change, amongst others. 

But has this translated into improvements in the quality of life for the majority of people living in South Africa (the poor) and are current development priorities in line with sustainable development principles and practice? By sustainable development I mean principles based on fairness, justice, peace, safety and security for the common good and benefit of all living beings, which takes into account the intrinsic value of the ecological systems that support present and future generations. The answer to the question is a clear NO!

Merely stating that we have the policies and strategies in place is not enough. The South African government’s unhealthy obsession with targets lacks a qualitative dimension.

Firstly, our government often claims that we have exceeded the water goal and made significant achievements in the provision of housing. However, writing in the Institute for Global Dialogue’s Dilemmas of Poverty and Development, Firoze Khan refers to the number of houses built versus their location. He contends that the quality of the houses and access to socio-economic facilities is often not measured.

Khan points out that targets can potentially distort resource allocation by re-routing expenditure away from desperately needed services administered by poor performing departments to good performers where the service needs may be less urgent. Targets often encourage risk-averse behaviour not dissociated from their professional motivation and responsibility. In other words, the sole pursuit of targets to be secured via strict compliance to regulations and performance measures leaves little room for innovation and creativity in programme design and implementation. 

Secondly, environmental matters are on the periphery in this country and seen as a cost to development, rather than integral to it.  Erik Reinert et al in their paper, Adapting to Climate Change in Reindeer Herding: The Nation-State as Problem and Solution, explain in standard economic terms that the value of nature is commensurable. Nature has no particular priority over other goods. In using cost benefit analysis, nature is often regarded as an opportunity cost. They add that a more ecological approach would prioritise nature as the basis of life, where its value would clearly be incommensurable with other values.

Even in the media, politics and economics often trump environmental matters. When reported upon, critical analysis in terms of politics, power and vested interests, as well our unsustainable consumption and production patterns, is lacking. Worse still, environmental or green matters have become the domain of the elite and privileged few in the media. 

Thirdly, the lack of leadership and political will is a major challenge. This political inertia in South Africa stems from environmental or sustainable development measures being viewed as a cost to meeting growth aspirations. Sustainable development is not perceived as an opportunity to reduce vulnerability and adapt to climate change through the adoption of eco-friendly approaches that address poverty, unemployment and access to basic services. This is evident in South Africa’s current electricity crisis; electricity expansion is primarily based on a coal strategy with limited consideration for renewable energy options. 

South Africa’s State of Environment Report 2006 warned that the overall condition of its environment was deteriorating and that some sectors were in advanced stages of deterioration. 

At the same time, South Africa has committed to many multilateral environmental agreements and engages relentlessly in multilateral environmental negotiations. If South Africa does not adequately deal with its environmental and social challenges, its credibility at the international level may be affected, particularly if South Africa’s sees its role as a leader in promoting multilateralism in global environmental governance. For example, South Africa played a prominent role in the climate change negotiations in Bali, however sustainable development considerations have not been sufficiently integrated into industrial, energy and other development polices at home. 

Policy makers need to understand that future growth and the overall quality of life is critically dependent on the quality of the environment and that the natural resource base of a country -- the quality of air, water and land represents a common heritage for all generations. Some trade-offs will be necessary to achieve sustainable development in South Africa, however not at the expense of the social well being of her people and environment.

Pressend coordinates the Trade Strategy Group (TSG) at the Economic Justice Network and Global Network Africa at the Labour Research Services in Cape Town. She is also an independent socio-political analyst on global issues related to trade, environment and climate change.

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