There were some congruencies but also some obvious tensions in attempting to transition South Africa to a “low-carbon, high-growth” path, the acting head of the Presidency’s National Planning Commission secretariat, Kuben Naidoo, has cautioned.
Speaking at a recent seminar in Johannes-burg, entitled Towards Low Carbon Growth in South Africa, Naidoo also stressed that increasing the labour absorption capacity of the economy remained South Africa’s chief priority and would, thus, trump all other imperatives, including the desire to lower the overall carbon intensity of the economy.
Naidoo’s comments came in a week when South Africa’s official unemployment for the first quarter of 2010 rose to above the 25% level, or 4,31-million people. He, thus, argued that labour absorption was the “biggest sustain-ability issue” facing policymakers.
Naidoo was supported by Development Bank of Southern Africa economist Dr Neva Makgetla, who warned that the transition costs associated with such an agenda were often not highlighted by advocates of the so-called green industries.
“It is neither easy nor cheap to make the move,” Makgetla cautioned.
However, both Naidoo and Makgetla agreed that it would be inappropriate and risky for South Africa to adopt a ‘business as usual’ stance with regard to the carbon intensity of its economy, as well as its exports. Some two-thirds of South Africa’s exports could be considered carbon heavy, owing to the fact that these arose primarily from within the resources milieu.
“But we need to find congruencies between the low-carbon growth aspiration and our high-employment ambitions,” Naidoo stressed, arguing that government was convinced that there were indeed some immediate synergies that should be grasped.
He was convinced, for instance, that higher energy prices, together with the prospect of carbon dioxide penalties, would bring a number of opportunities to the fore, particularly in the areas of public transport and improving South Africa’s spatial development characteristics.
There was also an opportunity to absorb employees in industries and companies dedicated to building and operating renewable-energy facilities, as well as in energy services companies that could improve the energy efficiency of buildings, homes, factories and mines.
“But we need better research on these con-gruencies,” Naidoo said, particularly as any move towards a low-carbon growth path could be in direct conflict with government’s growth aspirations in resources, agriculture and tourism.
However, the sustainable development head at Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (Tips), Peet du Plooy, warned that South Africa’s very competitiveness as an economy was at stake, as market access for its goods and services could, in future, be constrained by the carbon- intensive nature of production processes.
He argued that the transition to a lower- carbon economy could well be key to both protecting jobs and to creating new ones. So-called green industries, Du Plooy noted, had been experiencing “double-digit” growth rates since 2004, with a recent report out of the UK arguing that the sector already had yearly revenues of $5-trillion.
Strategies should, thus, be adopted to ensure that South Africa captured its “fair share” of that new and growing market, which could represent 7% of gross domestic product at some point in the future – similar to the current contribution of tourism.
It emerged that Tips, together with climate consultancy Camco and the British High Commission, was currently researching the risks and opportunities posed by climate change to South Africa’s economy, with the initial results indicating significant upside potential.
Camco senior consultant Alex McNamara reported that the concept of “climate com- petitiveness” was gaining traction and was already driving innovation in certain business sectors, such as South Africa’s food and wine industry.
The study had also indicated that the risks associated with inaction were “quite pronounced”. “Therefore, a proactive response is required,” McNamara argued.
There was already positive alignment between South Africa’s second industrial policy action plan and the country’s climate change policies. But McNamara said that it was now key to deepen the linkages and clear the regulatory constraints to the development of green industries.
However, he also acknowledged that there would need to be trade-offs between competing societal demands and admitted that there were also some serious skills constraints to accelerating the transition to a low-carbon growth path.
Sites of Training
However, where most South Africans are in agreement is that there can be few trade-offs (whether in the green or traditional industries) in the area of training. However, there is also consensus that there are serious gaps between the country’s skills development aspirations and the teaching and learning realities being faced.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the area of gaining workplace experience, which Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande has described as a “real bottleneck”.
Speaking on the anniversary of the formation of his department last week, Nzimande told delegates to the annual Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa conference that a round table would be convened later in the year at which government would discuss, with business and labour, ways of improving the availability of high-quality, structured workplace experience, which was aligned with the theoretical and practical curricula.
Nzimande said that he had been impressed, during a recent visit to Germany, with that country’s ‘dual system’, whereby trainees worked for four days in a week and attended college classes on the fifth.
“I must therefore appeal to employers with a proven track record in engineering-related artisan development to open up their work- places and take on additional learners in artisan- and trade-related apprenticeships, learnerships and structured work-experience programmes to enable them to meet the requirements for trade testing and achieve artisan-certificated status,” he added.
Government’s economic policy priority, he added, was the stimulation of investment into the productive sectors of the economy, supported by appropriate skills development.
The Minister promised to take personal responsibility for the acceleration of artisan training, as well as for the creation of a national register for artisans.
The register would hold the names and details of all those who had qualified through the relevant trade test and were practising as artisans in the trade in which they had qualified.