Climate change and election 2009

20th March 2009 By: Harald Winkler

This year, for the first time, climate change is an election issue in South Africa, although it is by no means dominating the platforms of parties. Many voters will be preoccupied with poverty, jobs and the economy, stupid. Probably a smallish share care deeply about the planet, and others will have recognised that climate change is a deeply economic issue. For yet others, there may simply be little to choose – and climate may make a difference.

The African National Congress (ANC) manifesto includes climate change, although very briefly. The agenda is linked strongly to “green jobs”. The likely winner of the election follows up on its Polokwane resolution on climate by promising to “develop and invest in a programme to create large numbers of 'green jobs', namely employment in industries and facilities that are designed to mitigate the effects of climate change”. Action on climate change, as far as the ANC is concerned, needs to be framed in terms of a public works programme on energy efficiency and renewable energy to provide green jobs (see last month’s Hot Spot).

The ANC breakaway party, the Congress of the People, or Cope, makes the link explicitly. It wants the Expanded Public Works Programme to do many things, including the “creation of work to clean and green the environment”. However, Cope does not explicitly mention climate change in this context. The party’s manifesto includes climate on a list of “important global challenges [such] as the reform of the United Nations and other institutions of global governance in the multilateral system, climate change, transnational organised crime, and international terrorism”.  It’s there, but it's hardly convincing stuff.

The Democtratic Alliance (DA) manifesto contains sections on both climate change and energy. It says that South Africa “cannot afford to wait in responding to the challenges of climate change”.  On mitigation, DA proposals take a rather idiosyncratic approach, focusing on carbon sequestration and sectoral targets on energy efficiency. The energy section does include reference to renewable energy, supporting a tariff and the roll-out of one-million solar water heaters. The target of 15% of energy by 2020 is framed in terms of “alternative energy”. It is not quite clear which these are. But the call for rigorous and participatory “long-term planning” should clarify the issue. The DA manifesto envisages the “eventual establishment of a price for carbon”, which would be a powerful signal, but without a clear timeframe. The focus of adaptation for the DA would be on water, extreme weather events, education and agriculture.

The Independent Democrats (ID) has a clear position on climate change. The party's manifesto states the problem clearly, noting that “South Africa is currently the fourteenth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world” and pointing to the impacts on biodiversity, water and salt-water intrusion. The ID’s proposed solution is equally unambiguous, built around renewable energy.

Energy efficiency and energy security also feature in the ID's manifesto, but the attention goes to renewables. While most other parties are silent on nuclear power, the ID would lobby for studies on radiation levels at Koeberg and radioactive waste disposal. The ID has a proposal for a sustainable energy future that is much more explicit than those of other parties. It has “a vision that sees South Africa at the forefront of the global energy revolution, where we can strategically position ourselves as a leader in certain technologies, particularly solar thermal and solar photovoltaic”.

One argument that the ID shares with the ANC is that the ID believes renewables can create thousands of jobs. The party proposes achieving its energy vision broadly through “ending Eskom’s monopoly”, thus democratising the energy sector. Specific instruments that the ID would see implemented are feed-in tariffs, production incentives, investment in research and development, and shifting industrial policy. On climate policy, the ID does not mince words either, wanting to put “in place measures now to address our greenhouse-gas emissions that are predominantly caused by the burning of coal for electricity generation”.

The United Democratic Movement (UDM) identifies climate change, water scarcity and energy as the three major crises facing the world. For South Africa, the UDM makes a clear link between poverty and climate change. Many of the ‘brown’ environmental concerns are listed, linking the “high levels of poverty in many parts of the country . . . to the destruction of the environment" and stating that "soil erosion, water pollution and deforestation are widespread”. The UDM’s manifesto goes on to explicitly mention climate as adding to existing stresses on the poor, in that “storms and adverse weather are becoming commonplace due to global climate change”. The three environmental challenges – including both energy and climate change – require concerted national and international responses. “A UDM government would be a champion of these causes locally, on the continent and in international forums”.

If you plan to vote on climate change, it seems you have the choice: you can vote for one of the smaller parties with a more explicit agenda on climate change; you can choose your particular variety of cleaner energy, even with explicit links to the central agenda of dealing with poverty; or you can put your faith that the weight of the largest party behind a briefer statement built around green jobs will be more effective.

Harald Winkler is Associate Professor at the Energy Research Centre, University of Cape Town  and can be contacted at Harald.Winkler@uct.ac.za. He writes in his personal capacity.