Reflections on Green Paper on national strategic planning

18th September 2009 By: Harald Winkler

National strategic planning holds huge promise. It could unite many parts of South Africa in moving towards a common national vision of development. Much depends on how it will be implemented. But, in this case, the plan comes straight from the top, driven by the Presidency. Clear goals will be central and should be shared publicly – as should be the measuring of progress against targets. From a climate change point of view, these should include goals for emissions.

The national vision will start by articulating development aims, restating them more sharply against milestones. The plan is also set to consider how deve- lopment can be made more sustainable. The discussion paper that has been released has the potential to be quite seriously green. Energy and climate change feature quite prominently. That creates opportunities for integrating the long-term imperatives of climate change into development planning in a big way. If the plan takes seriously the imperatives for climate-resilient and low-emissions development, then South Africa will be better placed to deal with climate impacts and compete in a carbon-constrained world.

Minister in the Presidency for National Planning Trevor Manuel released the Green Paper on national strategic planning in early September. It appears very serious about providing a long-term vision and a more coherent plan coordinated across government. A companion piece was issued by Collins Chabane, Minister for Performance Management, Monitoring and Evaluation, also in the Presidency. As important as publicly reporting on progress against goals will be his aim to “ensure that we have an outcomes-based performance”.

A National Planning Commission is proposed, with commissioners being “experts outside of government”. Under the guidance of Manuel, a national vision and national plan will be produced, with five-yearly reviews. Many more levels are identified, taking the Medium-Term Strategic Framework to a more detailed level, and informing national programmes of action. What is not so clear is how this high-level planning will articulate with the detailed plans needed in each sector.

A first reading of the Green Paper could lead to the impression that a new level of bureaucracy is being established. That would be deadly. The challenge will be to build institutions and set goals that are as simple as possible – but not simpler. The challenges themselves are clearly complex.

If national strategic planning can hold onto one simple thing, it should be its stated intention of setting clear goals and publicly reporting on progress against them. “To ensure constant focus, we have to set the milestones and targets that will mark our movement towards the ideals,” the paper states. It may seem simple and obvious, but could be profound – particularly if the goals are widely shared because they have been defined collaboratively.

Climate change mitigation is one area where clear and simple goals are needed. The problem is not defining the goals, which should be in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs). It is clear that we must reduce the growth of our GHG emissions and, indeed, reduce them. Following the long-term mitigation scenarios, government adopted a ‘peak, plateau and decline’ trajectory, which was subsequently endorsed more widely at the national climate change summit, in March this year.

That simple phrase means a commitment for GHG emissions to stop growing by 2020 to 2025 – the latter being the suggested target year for the national plan. Clearly, that will only happen if the rate of emissions growth starts declin- ing now. The plateau phase would allow a decade during which emissions are flat, before they need to decline (against the levels in 2030) in absolute terms. By 2050, we need to be below historical levels, perhaps something like 30% to 40% below 2000 levels.

So the simple indicator should be GHG emissions. Initially, progress could be measured in terms of energy intensity. If the amount of energy used to produce a rand of economic output declines, then (fuel mix being constant) the emissions intensity will also decline. But, in long-term planning, we clearly (together with the rest of the world) have a limited carbon budget. So we may as well start making that the indicator – the total GHG emissions that would be allowable over the next 40 years.

Such detailed goals should be part of the broad vision that the national strategic plan aims to start from. It will be critical that, at least, one of the commissioners has expertise in climate change – arguably two, one each on adaptation and mitigation. They will need to give input on ambitious, but realistic, goals for the country.

Targets need to be clear and measurable goals, and, just as importantly, they need to be shared goals. That only happens when they are deve- loped together. The Green Paper devotes several pages to consultation. But it appears to conceive of these as happening to quite a worrying extent just within govern- ment. And beyond that, it refers repeat- edly to the National Economic Develop- ment and Labour Council.

A clearer conception will be needed of joint planning by government, business and civil society. If the long-term mitigation scenarios process showed anything, it is that such participation need not be limited to vision, but that strategic thinkers should come from all walks of life in South Africa and contribute to detailed analysis of actions and their implications. A similar approach would be needed for the energy sector. The Green Paper, with refreshing bluntness, says it will not do “microplanning and sectoral planning”. In the energy sector, at least, one would hope that a major initiative like this would revitalise integrated energy planning, and that this would take place on a collaborative basis.

While it seems easy to guess at the politics behind this framing – that departments protect their line functions – the relationship between a high-level strategic plan and detailed sectoral plans will need to be defined more clearly. Integrated energy planning itself, in my view, should be the result of a participatory process. Consultation with the State-owned enterprise (Eskom) and the responsible Ministry and department (Public Enterprises) is not all it takes. For energy, certainly, a broader consultative process of involving strategic thinkers from government, business and civil society is needed to chart a vision of the energy sector in a low-carbon economy and society.

In the current framing of the Green Paper, such plans would be “taken on board” in the national plan. How that feeds back is dealt with only in a loose way – that national planning will “influence” sectoral plans and the allocation of resources. How this influence will happen is not clear. How will the national plan “set parameters” for integrated energy planning or for integrated resource planning (for electricity), which is now to be a well-resourced activity undertaken by Eskom?

The acid test will be if the national plan has the muscle to influence the decision regarding whether or not to invest in another Secunda or to build not just Coal1 and Coal2, but also Coal3. Will the National Planning Commission have a say in a lower-carbon alternative?