South Africa's Political Parties and Climate Change: Who Gets the Thumbs Up, Who Get the Thumbs Down?

By Michelle Pressend · 1 Apr 2009

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Picture: Indeed Motivation
Picture: Indeed Motivation

The success of the recently held Earth Hour, which 35 countries including South Africa participated in, is testimony to the growing understanding of the relationship between human energy consumption and climate change.

Energy consumption is at the heart of global warming. However and more importantly, we need to examine the issue more broadly. The planetary ecological crisis, commonly referred to as climate change, is a systemic dilemma stemming from unsustainable economic growth and consumption, as well as ill-suited productions methods. The links between poverty, environmental degradation, the decline in production (particularly agricultural production), the lack of peoples’ access to basic services and widening inequalities are a consequence of profit-driven, market orientated and trade-led policies.

Yash Tandon, formerly the Executive Director of South Centre and author of Ending Aid Dependence reminds us "Capitalism has been a predatory system for 400 years with dire ecological consequences…what we are witnessing is not just (the) melting of the global financial market. We are witnessing the meltdown of the capitalist and ecological systems…"

Our political leaders certainly do not demonstrate an adequate understanding of the root causes of climate change. This is reflected in the election manifestos of the main parties competing in South Africa’s political arena, namely, the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of the People (COPE), the Democratic Alliance (DA), and Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and to a lesser extent, the Independent Democrats (ID). 

The ANC gets a 'thumbs down'. While the ANC did adopt a resolution on climate change in Polokwane, nowhere is the essence of the resolution reflected in its election manifesto.

The only mention of climate change is to "develop and invest in a programme to create large numbers of green jobs, mainly employment industries and facilities that are designed to mitigate the effects of climate change." The ANC’s manifesto doesn’t explain which sectors will be targeted for development, or how South Africa should transform itself to a low carbon society. The entire manifesto, couched in populist tones, presents steps, which are contrary to reducing fossil fuel dependence.

At a political debate co-hosted by the Faculty of Humanities and the Students Representative Council at the University of Cape Town on 26 March 2009, Trevor Manual acknowledged that climate change is a big topic and that the ANC had adopted a resolution on climate change.

Since the climate change discussion was largely focused on renewable energy, he pointed out that the pricing of electricity is closely intertwined with industrial production and therefore coal power stations can’t just be closed down -- highlighting the ANC’s reluctance to move away from a dependence on fossil fuels.

COPE, represented by Philip Dexter, made the point that addressing climate change is not only about renewable energy alternatives but that South Africa should also explore its gas reserves. COPE is of the view that gas explorations are not happening because of the coal lobby in South Africa. 

The COPE manifesto makes no mention of an approach to address climate change. Thus, they get a definite 'thumbs down'. The manifesto does, however, support the development of an “integrated, intermodal, safe and reliable public transport system”. But they don’t expand on how they will go about achieving this. Will it be along similar lines to the DA promoting private operations? Or will it promote strong public investments and public management of the transport system?

The COPE manifesto has a small section on ensuring sustainable development. They iterate that "there is no trade-off between economic growth and sustainable development."  To promote sustainable development they endorse natural gas and renewable energy sources, the development of cleaner technology for power generation from coal and measures to encourage recycling. Finally, they give the nod to organic farming. 

The DA's Ryan Coetzee's contribution focused on setting targets for reducing emissions as well as support for greater numbers of renewable energy companies to be feeding into the national electricity grid.

Climate change does indeed feature in the DA's manifesto. They propose a number of mitigation measures such as carbon sequestration (planting more trees to absorb carbon) and sectoral targets to improve energy efficiency. They also propose adaptation measures, which include investment in water infrastructure, planning for extreme weather events and education for those more likely to be affected by climate change, particularly in the field of agriculture. 

The DA would like to break Eskom’s electricity monopoly and create an enabling environment for more private actors to enter the energy sector. They believe that the establishment of the price of carbon and the rigorous enforcement of environmental laws will make environmental and energy alternatives more viable. 

Their manifesto also places emphasis on developing a public transport system. However, the approach of this delivery by the private sector under a sound regulatory system to "guarantee safety and affordability" is questionable.

In my book, the DA also gets a 'thumbs down'. This is because of their emphasis on market-based solutions to address climate change. These market-based mechanisms have already been criticized internationally for not resulting in global emission reductions. Instead, the measures have benefited the big polluters who have made windfall profits through carbon trading systems. 

The IFP gets a straight ‘thumbs down’. The IFP makes no mention of the environment or the impact of climate change on social and economic development. They prioritse land reform and similar to the ANC, their approach to agricultural production may have a more detrimental impact on the environment by contributing to climate change. The IFP focuses on the economic aspects of food production to the detriment of a more holistic approach. The intensive farming methods that they support are simply harmful to the environment.

The only party that gets the 'thumbs up' on climate change is the ID.  At the UCT debate the ID, represented by Lance Greyling, saw climate change as an opportunity to build the local industry and create more jobs.

Greyling stressed that South Africa has the resources for renewable energy. He indicated that the ID is fervently opposed to nuclear energy and alluded to the huge sums of money going offshore.  The ID’s election manifesto "rejects the current government proposal of spending R700 billion on contracts with foreign companies to build nuclear power stations."  They believe that this money should be used to develop the renewable energy industry to support our energy needs in a sustainable way and create more jobs and develop appropriate skills. The ID believes South Africa could position itself as world leader in solar energy. 

Showing a better understanding of the big picture, the ID supports the need for feed-in tariffs as an incentive for private producers. 

The ID takes a more holistic approach to addressing environmental challenges and climate change. They recognise the need to address environmental justice and also present some practical examples on integrating environmental approaches into housing, public transport, land use, water use and other areas. For example, in housing, they promote the idea that all housing must be energy efficient and have solar water heaters installed so as to reduce the energy cost of the household.

Their manifesto also reflects a deeper intrinsic value and interdependence between humans and nature. It, in some way illustrates the four principles and power of nature: water, air, fire (energy) and earth (land). 

To their credit, the ID highlights the importance of confronting the dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and questions the industrial-agricultural models that have caused the degradations of soil and the pollution of rivers. 

My main criticism is that political parties continue to adopt solutions that are largely trade-led and market-driven with technological advancements at the forefront. The focus is on economic optimization, despite these approaches having not materialized into significant reductions of GHG emissions.

Climate change and environmental degradation can nor longer be seen as an 'add on'. The climate change crisis presents an opportunity to radically change production and consumption patterns, particularly wasteful consumption first and foremost in the North, but also by elites in the South. 

Climate change needs to be mainstreamed into national development and the transition to a low carbon society must be planned in such a way that it protects existing workers and new jobs opportunities.

Solutions must move beyond technical approaches that only address the symptoms. This crisis provides an opportunity to address the root causes of the economic growth paradigm. It is time for political parties to step up support for sustainable, just and equitable solutions, which meet the needs of people and recognize that addressing poverty and economic development are impossible to achieve if we continue to destroy our ecological systems.

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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Murray Huner
1 Apr

Video of the Event

Absolutely valid criticisms: Climate is not near enough of a priority in South African electioneering, despie SA's massive emission profile.

If you're interested, you can see video of the event at The Cape Town Globalis Online (an international affairs magazine at UCT):

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Rory Short
3 Apr

Infinite Growth is not Sustainable

I totally agree with Michele's point that our climate and ecological poblems are the consequence of the economic system we have created which is founded upon continuous growth. Infinite economic growth is not sustainable on a finite planet.

Two factors give support to this belief in endless growth however. One is human greed. The other is the ever increasing human population which provides an ever increasing market.

Greed is something that has to be addressed on an individual basis yes, but this has to have the backing of society. At the moment society through advertsing backs greed, promoting the consumption and possession of more and more things. The economic system is structured in such a way that it actually demands ever increasing consumption to keep operating.

The earth's capacity to carry human beings especially those living or aspiring to live a western life style was exceeded some time ago. Of course in the short term this provides a bigger market but in the long term it will see us off the planet.

Both of these human tendencies have got to be reined in if we are to survive as a species.

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21 Apr

Totally Agree with Rory

Rory Short is 100% right, there is not much more to add to his post. The problem facing civilisation is unlike any other in its history - for the first time, we can't defeat a foreign enemy - the change has to be from within, it is our own greed and lust for comfort and convenience that must be defeated. Until we can wean ourselves of this addiction - and very, very quickly - we will soon be past the tipping point, and the vast majority of societies will soon resemble current day Somalia. It's much closer than most people think.

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The Lorax
21 Apr

The Answer is Not Government

There are not many political parties in SA that give a fig for climate change/environment, etc, as illustrated above. The lack of awareness of the general populace to the position that humanity is in ensures that it is not an issue that merits mentioning in manifestos as it will not win any more or less votes.

This is assuming that the political parties themselves are aware of the positon we are in.

Change in this regard will never come from governments but rather from those who have the awareness of where we are really heading.

All that the article above illustrates is that we in SA have not one hope in hell if we rely on our government, any government for that matter (ANC, DA, COPE, etc).

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16 Aug

IDANCOPE - Indefensible Anarcho-Capitalist Political Elite

Now that ID have 'officially' joined the DA, who like the ANC support world bank debts, new coal fired power stations, more nuclear fission power stations, GE food, etc. have you updated your position?
Why no mention of the million rand barrier to participation that kept the Socialist Green Coalition of the ballot? Instead, your expectation of mainstream bourgeois parties becoming truly green is not rational - they only adopt green-wash and minimal demands that do not challenge elite concentrations of wealth and power.

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