South Africa and Elections: Is the low-carbon transition at risk?

The elections in May could shape the future of South Africa. With the ruling party in crisis and the electoral debate concerned with creating jobs and economic growth at any costs, progress made by South Africa on climate policy in recent years could be reversed. A broader economic and electoral debate that incorporates elements of a low carbon transition would be far more beneficial to South Africa.

A politics of crisis

Short-term priorities and political agendas continue to undermine public policymaking in South Africa, making politicians lose direction and falter. This is a problem for South Africa’s low carbon transition because it is the quality of a country’s politics and governance that will largely determine the ability to create a low carbon future.

The crisis in the incumbent African National Congress (ANC) poses great challenges for a democracy that was born only 20 years ago. Insisting that citizens fight for a vibrant democracy must be a key task this year. The choices we make in these elections will determine the future of South Africa and, ultimately, whether we undo or strengthen the progress made on climate policy and clean energy thus far.

It is unclear how many citizens will vote in May’s election. Abstention is a concern in South Africa. Many see the act of not voting as a form of punishing corrupt politicians, as voters have come to believe that politics is little more than the manipulation of public opinion and a charade of unmet promises. This endless cycle of expectation and disappointment damage our country, weakening the hopes that were once so high in the Mandela era.

The disjuncture between the Mandela era and the current one became evident when a large crowd booed President Zuma during the memorial service for Mandela in December 2013 demonstrating the massive shift in public opinion regarding the ANC.

Although the ANC is expected to win the election, its image is tarnished and the party has lost significant ground among voters. The ANC is part of a political alliance with the South Africa Community Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which may grow even weaker over time. “The Alliance,” as it is called, is a crucial power block that maintains the ANC’s base and voter outreach. Although it will probably survive this election, it is likely to fracture by the elections scheduled for 2019.

The weaknesses of the ANC do not necessarily constitute its demise, but an opportunity for renewal both within and outside of the ANC.

The Democratic Alliance is the only other large party whose support has grown since 1994 at the expense of the ANC. The Democratic Alliance seeks to rebrand itself as a multiracial party, but is still perceived by the majority of black South Africans as a “white party” that only represents the privileged few.

Two political parties formed in 2013 may diminish the Democratic Alliance’s hopes of increasing the black vote: the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by a former ANC youth leader and former Zuma ally, and Agang. These new parties could bring about a battle for principles, as well as a reconfiguration of South Africa’s political power map.

Linking the elections to South Africa’s low carbon future

Corruption and jobs have dominated the electoral debates in 2014, but this tight focus is a missed opportunity: we need to debate South Africa’s transition to a low carbon economy. We therefore need to debate and show why and how the legitimate pursuit of economic growth, jobs and development can support the transition to a low-carbon society.

We need to show why and how South Africa’s transition to a low carbon economy links to the anti-corruption and job creation agendas.

The real economy matters to ordinary South Africans. In the next elections, economic policy, including jobs, service delivery, the price of petrol and the question of e-tolls will overshadow climate change debates. Every effort should be made to unify economic policy and the necessary transition to a low carbon economy. Climate change is not only a question of energy security but of affordable energy security, and these are fundamental issues that must be tackled. The economic basis of a low carbon future has not been determined at the national level. South Africa must address how to best combine the objectives of energy security, climate change and economic development as part of mainstream economic planning. We believe that a low carbon future is possible given many of the policy pillars are already in place.

The policy debate on environment, climate and economics went through a watershed period in 2011 when climate change became a visible public policy issue. Although it is debated whether this breakthrough in national thinking occurred by design or not, these precedents could determine how deeply this low-carbon transition is integrated over the next 20-30 years.

It could also determine our performance on the 2009 pledge of deviating 34% to 42% below our ‘business as usual’ emissions growth trajectory by 2020 and 2025 respectively, progress which is conditional upon receiving financial support from developed countries. Climate change considerations were incorporated into the 2010 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for electricity. Following the launch of the Green Economy Accord in 2011 prior to South Africa’s hosting the UN climate conference in Durban, stronger links to a green economy were introduced into the political conversation.

Preparing for a low carbon transition: Will it survive the election?

2012 saw a major milestone when the National Planning Commission released its National Development Plan setting out a 20-year vision that could improve, among other issues, the level of coordination among government agencies in ways that reinforce our low carbon transition. This plan seeks to influence some public spending considerations and its ambitious content has become a source of both inspiration and debate. It builds on South Africa’s National Climate Change Response Paper, which sets the mandate for actions on mitigation and adaptation.

It is unclear whether the commission and the plan will be in place after the elections. The issue of whether South Africa can achieve low carbon objectives through more state intervention or whether the use of private-sector approaches is required underpins this uncertainty.

Coal, carbon tax and vested interests

Since 2011, South Africa has rolled out large-scale renewable energy projects. Nearly 4,000 MW have been commissioned and these projects will stimulate new sources of growth, enterprise, and economic development through low carbon investments. These projects are part of the planned 19GW that must be installed by 2030, according to the Department of Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan 2010-2030.

And yet, 90% of South Africa’s electricity still comes from coal. Changing the electricity mix of Eskom, the state electricity utility, could reduce the carbon intensity of the entire grid, as 40% of South Africa’s liquid fuels come from the conversion of coal to fuel. It is for this reason that only a handful of companies, most notably Eksom and the now privatised liquid fuels company SASOL, are responsible for most of the nation’s carbon emissions.

Today there are signs of change. The notion of a “carbon budget” has already become an important perimeter in the planned rollout of new electricity power plants. A carbon tax is set for implementation in January 2015 and the National Treasury released a discussion paper about this tax in May 2013. As of last year a fiery debate on carbon taxes is underway. Unsurprisingly, major emitters are reducing the carbon tax to an issue of mere “cost” that will make electricity bills even more expensive stressing that in the past 3 years consumers have already seen double-digit tariff hikes.

The ANC is against the carbon tax, undoing some of its own visions for a low carbon transition. This carbon tax, however, is unlikely to be a visible campaign issue to the extent seen in Australia, since jobs and corruption are expected to dominate the presidential debates.

A divide still prevails between those defending coal and those supporting a future with decreasing coal dependence. The ANC still consider coala strategic asset for South Africa. While the ANC recognises the need for climate change policies and sees opportunities in the green economy, it remains sceptical of the international climate change agenda and of externally imposed emission reduction strategies. The ANC and its allies, especially the labour unions, have emphasised that any climate change interventions must support the imperatives of industrialisation, economic development and job creation.

Many climate change policy achievements could be scaled back depending on how vested interests unfold after the election. These interests have already pushed the South African government to consider a third coal plant and new nuclear plants, and the thorny issue of fracking and shale gas remains unresolved.

Climate policy achievements could be reversed depending on how vested interests unfold after the election.

An active anti-carbon tax lobby exists that resorts to narratives on how climate action will hurt the economy and the poor, which is, arguably, a strategy to manipulate the public. If Eskom and other major polluters succeed, the government might postpone, or grant exemptions from implementing new air quality standards on existing power stations. This will set a negative precedent by creating arguments against air-pollution reduction technologies that could be used in the battle against low carbon solutions that are urgently required in coal plants, coal-to-liquid plants and refineries.

The tired argument that climate policy is a heavy cost for industry and hurts the poor must be confronted with substantive arguments. These arguments ought to emphasize the harm that results from South Africa’s dependence on fossil fuels, how the dominance of fossil fuel interests undermines the interests of the majority, and why derailing the low-carbon transition will stymie South Africa’s development.

This election could reconfigure the balance of power and, therefore, the prospects for climate, national planning and clean energy policies. Vested interests in the fossil fuel industry remain strong and 2014 demands a broader debate in order to show what is at stake and why South Africa cannot afford to lose the ground gained in climate policy in the few last years. A narrow and sterile debate on jobs and the economy restricts a new vision for our nation that explicitly weaves climate and environmental objectives into social and economic policy. Building this wider electoral debate is a prime ambition for this year.

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