Picture: GETTY IMAGES
Picture: GETTY IMAGES

The hottest year on record was 2019, not only in SA but across the globe. The effect of this has been severe, including droughts that adversely affected food security while limiting access to fresh water supplies, which hit the most marginalised in our society hardest.

While we have world-class policies to address these environmental challenges, including the National Development Plan’s (NDP) commitment to achieving a low-carbon status by 2030, implementation remains poor. We are grappling to co-ordinate these policies across departments at local, provincial and national levels. Coupled with a lack of access to funding and the skills required to procure funding from a global pool of benefactors, we are seriously hampered in our ability to transition to a clean, low-carbon economy.  

The rapid rate of urbanisation compounds the problem. With more and more people coming to our cities to find work, it is often environmentally sensitive and protected areas that are most affected by the mushrooming of informal settlements. While cities have access to land that is close to economic areas, legislation and land-use policies are barriers to what they can achieve.  

Climate change is a crisis — albeit slow-burning — and should be treated like the Covid-19 pandemic. We are running out of water at a rapid rate. At this pace we won’t get to 2030 with a reliable freshwater supply. Despite this sobering reality we are not seeing the urgent response we have seen with Covid-19. Yet if we do not act now it will be too late; all of us, not only certain cities, will end up at Day Zero.

Covid-19 has highlighted how government departments on the provincial and local level can work better together, using funding more effectively. We have consistently shown through this crisis how resilient we are when we set our minds to something. But we are operating in crisis mode. We need to apply the same effort to tackling the water crisis, waste and landfills and human settlements, to name just a few issues.

This starts on an individual level. SA consumers have developed a “throwaway” culture where we want the latest gadget, product or brand and discard what we already have, creating a cycle of waste, much of which ends up in already overflowing landfills.

There is a drive to get the latest car and wear the newest fashions, as this says: “I’ve arrived.” This sense of having arrived is linked to consumption, and we need to change that through increased awareness and education on a local and household level. We also need to change our language: we talk of going organic but this is perceived to be elitist. Yet it’s no different to how our ancestors and grandparents used to live; we need to get back to basics.

A welcome byproduct of a more environmentally responsive society is job creation. From manufacturing buses that run on clean energy to reducing hard paving and bringing nature back into cities, and driving recycling initiatives to procure waste that can be used to create new products, we can kick-start a whole value chain of employment.

Just consider plastic: there are so many opportunities arising from plastic waste; it can be used in different sectors. Household cleaning product bottles or make-up containers, for instance, can be recycled and the materials reused. Reduction of our water usage can be addressed through innovative plumbing solutions and we can train artisans in this trade. Communities can also generate their own energy and sell to others, and the grid, providing alternative income streams.

Government integration with the private sector is key to achieving this, as is the scalability of pilot projects that happen in cities and villages. Projects that are working should be replicated and municipalities, cities and different entities need to experiment and fail, as it is in failure that lessons are learnt. There is an aversion to failure as government wants initiatives and programmes to work the first time round and we get stuck in the policy space, which limits our ability to test possible solutions.

Look at the renewable energy space: while we urgently need viable alternatives to fossil fuels and Eskom, there is too much bureaucracy and legislation that delays these projects, sometimes for reasons of personal interest or pocket lining.  

It is just nine years to 2030. To reach the country’s NDP aspirations, not to mention goal 13 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which cautions us to take urgent action to combat climate change and its effects, we need to act now. It can be done: consider that greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 6% in 2020 due to travel bans and lockdowns. But this is temporary; when life returns to “normal” these levels will rise again.

Nature needs to be brought back into our cities in the form of more green spaces and rooftop gardens. We need to reduce pollution through more environmentally friendly transport options and launch nationwide recycling programmes. Life must come back to the cities through biodiversity. Not only does this go some way in addressing our Green Agenda, but it also affects our development as humans.

We need to rebuild our relationship with the environment. And it starts at home.

• Makhele is programme manager at the SA Cities Network.

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