Parties still not prepared to tackle climate change and energy poverty

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As we head into next week’s National Elections, with the news that unemployment is now at an all-time-high of 33% overall and 46% among the youth, many South Africans see this election as the most significant since 1994. For civil society organisations – Project 90 by 2030, the Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute (SAFCEI), the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office, African Climate Alliance, The Green Connection, 350 Africa and Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) – note that climate change and  environmental issues are coupled with increasing poverty. The lack of clear direction coming from the government to ensure a just energy transition is a matter that all political parties should be able to address.

This is why, earlier this month (on 8 May 2024), these NGOs engaged as many political parties as possible. The Democratic Alliance, Rise Mzansi, and Economic Freedom Fighters availed themselves for the event which was a lively debate that provided insights into party’s perspectives and plans for energy, eco-justice and climate change issues. It was also an opportunity to better understand how these politicians view the climate crisis and the degradation of the environment, in relation to the many issues citizens currently face. The African National Congress were among those invited but did not attend.

Sarah Robyn Farrell African Climate Alliance says, “There is a growing urgency to address our collective climate and energy crises for the sake of human rights, economic stability, and environmental preservation for future generations. This can and should be used as an opportunity by the government to centre the most impacted people in our country. That means incorporating a socio-environmental lens across decision-making and planning. It means prioritising sustainable socio-environmental solutions to energy poverty, and lack of housing, food and water. As well as addressing unemployment and inequality through green jobs and economic reforms.”

An important part of the debate was when political parties got a chance to hear directly from communities about the environmental issues they face, such as lack of access to clean water, the impact of loadshedding on livelihoods. Communities highlighted that their living conditions are inhumane and that they, poor and working-class people, are the ones who bear the brunt of climate change because when there is flooding, it is often the people who live in shacks who are affected first and most negatively. People emphasized that these are obstacles that affect their ability to live full, happy lives and as meaningful contributors to this democracy.

Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute Maia Nangle says, “As a faith-based environmental justice organisation, we have seen how the climate, energy, and economic crises are impacting the livelihoods of people in South Africa daily. This is why we call on all those who seek to represent us, to be committed to real change by putting people over profit, ensuring a meaningful just energy transition to a renewable energy future, and implementing policy frameworks that overcome existing barriers and allow collaboration between all sectors of society. But most importantly, this process must be inclusive and for this we need transparency and information sharing, in addition to equitable opportunities for meaningful engagement.”

During the debate, largely led by young South Africans, it became apparent that not all the political parties present were fully prepared to respond to energy poverty and climate change issues despite these being some of the top social issues the country is facing right now. Political parties reiterated their manifestos without incorporating climate or energy messaging, which is a clear indication that they did not spare any thought for the issues at the crux of the debate. It is largely worrying that these issues are not top-of-mind for those hoping to lead South Africa into the future.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) said that before they can focus on climate change, they intend to prioritise industrialisation and job creation. The party plans to move to renewables at its own pace. The EFF merely acknowledges the issues of energy poverty and climate change, however, the creation of jobs is their top priority.

The EFF said South Africa requires a reliable energy system to industrialise, particularly for heavy industry, but the creation of jobs does not necessarily have to be energy intensive. The party said it plans to create jobs in the delivery of services to those who have been previously denied access to basic services.

Gabriel Klaasen from Project 90 by 2030 says, “With 2024 marking 30 years of democracy in South Africa, it is essential that we further our call for justice, especially with it also being an election year. We need proper and effective leadership – with environmental, economic and social justice at the forefront. We have an opportunity to define our future with people’s power at the centre.”

The Democratic Alliance (DA) said it recognises the need for both mitigation efforts and adaptation measures, to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas contributions and to support South Africans through a changing climate. This includes providing alternative employment opportunities to support those impacted by the transition to renewable energies in finding meaningful work.

The DA plans to unbundle Eskom, and have the private sector play more of a role in South Africa’s energy landscape. The party said they plan to increase support for large-scale solar rollout to private homes with their own energy generation that can be fed back into the grid, significantly reducing the burden on the grid and providing the opportunity to generate revenue.

The Green Connection’s Advocacy Officer Lisa Makaula says, “As we gear-up towards elections, we have seen disadvantaged communities continue to struggle due to energy poverty while they are also facing effects of climate change. We hope to see these issues being prioritised and addressed by our government for every citizen to have access to affordable clean energy. This must be done as a matter of urgency and it must include meaningful engagement with citizens, especially those who may be most affected. But how can our people be fully involved in our democracy when all attention is focused on basic survival? Political parties must realise that the just transition is the country’s chance to start to fix many of our problems, mostly because it encourages civil inclusion and action and calls for the fair distribution of resources.”

Rise Mzansi says it believes that making climate change mitigation a priority brings with it opportunities for South Africans. The party supports the decentralisation of South Africa’s energy industry and a transition away from coal-dependency, which would be to the benefit of communities most affected by the coal industry. Rise Mzansi says it is guided by intersectionality, which sees climate justice and social justice as interconnected. The party supports a diversified energy plan and aims to build a sovereign system that is affordable, and which benefits the people by including climate justice in its internal workings.

Moving away from coal and embracing climate justice is a commendable step, however, Rise Mzansi’s message gets lost in translation when they mention their desired energy mix for South Africa, which includes more nuclear power and gas. The party wants to take a step into the future and embrace green energy but it is also stuck in history and wants to keep fossil fuels. Rise Mzansi says it supports a diversified energy plan consisting of renewables, green hydrogen, small nuclear reactors, and gas. They plan for solar to be used in every building and to support local capacity to be able to develop this initiative.

350 Africa says, “South Africa's energy future hangs in the balance. We need bold policies to transform our energy sector as well as prevent the worst impacts of climate change. It's time for a radical shift. We need massive state investment in clean energy, climate jobs, and green industrialization that delivers economic opportunities for all.

And we need answers from political parties on how they will build a ‘Green New Eskom’ to drive the genuine social ownership of our energy future. We want to know exactly how they plan to ensure a just transition to renewable energy that lifts millions out of poverty and seriously tackles inequality. We want to know how political parties will respond. The urgency of the crisis means we need concrete solutions, not just empty promises.”

According to the organisations, what is evident is that political parties are not seeing the just transition for the opportunity that it is, to lift millions out of poverty and seriously tackle inequality, as well as secure our energy future, while mitigating the many climate change impacts affecting primarily the working class and poor majority. They urge voting South Africans to consider this, when heading to the polls next week.