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Picture: PEXELS/PIXABAY
Picture: PEXELS/PIXABAY

There are two important numbers when considering SA’s transition to a carbon-neutral economy. The first is 4.8-billion and the second is zero.

The former is the number of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions SA emitted in 2018 (the latest available official statistics). Zero is the net number of greenhouse gas emissions SA must emit by 2050.

The most important question, then, is how to get to zero. As I write this I am without power for the second time today. We are in the middle of the worst energy crisis in recent memory. This latest round of rolling blackouts has already done irreparable harm to a nascent economic recovery.

So, forget the ANC’s three bogeymen of poverty, unemployment and inequality — SA’s socioeconomic sustainability will hinge on our ability to balance the competing priorities of energy security today and a sustainable or greener tomorrow.

There is a generation of SA children who have grown up with load-shedding a permanent feature. A child who entered grade 1 in 2008 is now into her second year at university. That alone is an indictment of the problem-solving ability of our leaders.

The scale and complexity of the challenges requires leaders skilled in engineering, technical and finance. These are qualities our political system has historically not placed a premium on, and thus failed to produce.

Shifting SA from a carbon-fuelled economy to a more carbon-neutral one is horrendously complex. It touches every sector, business and person. It is also fraught with danger, as it has potential to deepen race, class and socioeconomic divisions.

It requires careful planning, synchronised changes in regulatory and legislative regimes, incentives to encourage firms to drive decarbonisation in the real economy, reskilling workers in the most vulnerable industries, and negotiating the financial contracts and instruments that will underpin these initiatives.

Doing this well will require new leaders — across the public and private spheres unburdened by the history of broken promises that fuels mistrust and impedes genuine partnership.

At the same time we need to solve the immediate problem of load-shedding. It is not wrong but reckless to suggest, as some have, that the easiest way to solve the energy crisis is to allow for the accelerated build-up of between 10,000MW and 20,000MW and essentially allow Eskom’s coal-fired power stations to die. It is not a zero sum game.

At the same time, the recent devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal have brought into stark relief that climate change is not a developed-world issue but a developing-country one. So, the argument of coal fundamentalists who seem to downplay the threat of climate change to the sustainability of developing-country economies does not wash.

It is not just in policy-making that attitudes and skills must improve. Even across the SA private sector new thinking and approaches are required. Financial services and banks will have a critical role in facilitating the decarbonisation of the real economy.

Banks especially must leverage their deep market expertise and insight to mobilise capital towards market-based climate solutions. This will require innovative financial solutions, including a bolder ambition to partner firms (or local governments) to adapt to climate risk, including weather-related catastrophe bonds, promoting financing and investment in water and wastewater infrastructure, and accelerating green infrastructure.

Given the scale of the challenge, competing priorities and interests and SA’s socioeconomic dynamics, achieving a just, orderly transition will require a collaborative, whole-of-society approach that includes contributions from both the public and private sectors.

However, based on prior experience, for it to have any chance of success, this effort will have to be led by a new breed of private and public sector leaders.

• Khoza is an investment banker based in Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.

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