Last year, the world’s foremost climate science body warned that if the world is to avert devastating climate destabilization, we need to take sweeping and unprecedented action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade. In other parts of the world, political parties are responding by declaring a climate emergency and promising bold climate action in line with science and justice.
So, as we head to the polls here in South Africa, which party will work on equitably transforming us from the biggest carbon polluter on the continent to a climate action taking, renewable energy superpower? And if you’re a voter who wants to support a party that really cares about taking climate action, then where should you put your X on May 8th?
The African National Coal-Peddlers
If you were holding out hope that the ruling party would deliver us to the promised land, you may be disappointed. A recent African Climate Reality Project environmental scorecard of election manifestos put the ANC second last on the rankings, coming in ahead only of the African Christian Democratic Party – who failed to even mention climate change in their environmental policy platform. However, while the ANC scored low on the environment broadly, they do make a few promises on climate action.
After being beaten back by civil society, the ANC has dropped its problematic nuclear program, and instead begun to embrace renewable energy. They seem to have taken a large cue from the trade unions, promising a just transition for workers as a central element of moving towards a sustainable and low carbon energy future, and calling for Eskom to play an active role in developing renewable energy and promoting public ownership thereof.
It is difficult to know how seriously to take these promises, with South Africa’s previously fastest growing renewable energy sector in the world, having ground to a halt under ANC leadership. Additionally, their section on promoting renewable energy simultaneously peddles the idea that we have abundant coal reserves which should serve as a cheap source of energy for us – a claim that runs contrary to the evidence showing that our lowest cost energy future is a renewable one.
The ANC vaguely promises “to recommit South Africa to take forward its responsibilities… in line with the Paris [Climate] Agreement”. However, the commitment the ANC-led government made under the Paris Agreement is ranked as “highly insufficient”. If the rest of the world followed our example, we’d be heading to a climate devastated world of 4°C above pre-industrial levels, far from the stricter, safer Paris Agreement goal of keeping warming to 1.5°C.
In the end, a ruling party should largely be assessed by what it has achieved. Apartheid’s pollution-heavy legacy and 25 years of ANC policies have left South Africa 114th out of 115 countries on progress transitioning to a sustainable and secure energy system – with polluting coal dominating our energy sector, and only 68% of the population with reliable electricity access. While the ANC has made some vague promises to shift course, their past actions speak louder than electoral promises.
The Fracking DA
In comparison to both the ANC and EFF, the DA manifesto has a much longer list of environmental policies and ideas. However, the environment comes in second last on their manifesto, and their overall vision, values, vision for government, or “agenda for change”, all fail to mention the environment, climate change or any environmental issues. Not quite a sign that the DA will prioritize grappling with environmental issues.
While the DA promises to “upscale renewable energy” it provides no mention of targets for this upscaling. They leave it unclear whether we are heading for 100% renewable energy or 10% under a DA government – hardly a firm commitment to a renewable energy future. One thing they are clear about is that they love fracking. Indeed, their manifesto dedicates more time to fracking than to renewable energy.
The DA’s love of fracking is bad news for the climate for two reasons, both of which the DA somewhat conveniently fails to mention. Firstly, experience from the States, shows that the toxic chemical and water intensive process of fracking often has significant levels of methane emission leakage. Methane is a super potent greenhouse gas, and the levels of leakage are often high enough to make fracked gas worse for the climate than coal. Secondly, even if we manage to regulate and monitor fracking better than the States and reduce fugitive methane emissions, gas still emits a lot of carbon when it is burnt. In fact, under South Africa’s 2018 Integrated Resource Plan, gas is set to be our biggest new source of carbon emissions.
A final worry about the DA is its lack of concern for workers and communities that might lose out in the transition away from coal and fossil fuels. While the ANC centred a just transition in its manifesto, the DA calls for privatization of the energy sector without any mention of communities and workers dependent on coal. Such a vision will do little to quell the resistance of those who fear losing out to climate action. A just transition to a lower cost 100% renewable energy future is possible, but the DA offers us a future powered predominately by fracked gas with a bit of renewable energy too.
The Freedom from Economic Reality Fighters
Looking at the African Climate Reality Project scorecard, the EFF comes off looking good, coming out ahead of any other party on their commitments to climate/environmental justice and governance. The EFF makes a number of good promises on climate justice. However, examining their manifesto, one is left with the feeling that they score so high, because unshackled by the need to deliver on their promises, they have promised us the world, as well as another incompatible world too.
At different points the EFF manifesto commits to both ramping up and ramping down coal production. It also appeals to oxymorons like “safe” “environmentally friendly” energy from coal – there’s no such thing, coal is always dirty. Complementing their “safe coal” is their commitment to the myth of “safe” fracking. And putting the cherry on top, the EFF wants to exhume our problematic nuclear program.
More broadly, it’s not clear how the EFF plans to reconcile its relatively ambitious promise of reducing carbon emissions by 10% by 2024, with its promised GDP growth of 10% in 3 years’ time – growth supposedly fuelled by booming nationalized mining, oil, gas and coal sectors. While it’s unlikely the EFF can deliver on 10% GDP growth, what is delivering on affecting our GDP growth is climate change, which has cost South Africa 10%-20% of its GDP according to a recent study.
The Pale Green Parties of South Africa
Another leader on the African Climate Reality Project environmental scorecard is The Green Party of South Africa, which comes out ahead of all the other parties on their commitment to environmental policy. However, their commitments to social and racial justice left them staggering behind, and a read of their manifesto reveals a somewhat privileged out-of-touch white environmentalism that will likely fail to speak to most South Africans.
Their manifesto calls out affirmative action as racism, playing into a problematic trope of white victimhood, which fails to understand how affirmative action is an attempt to redress ongoing deep structural racism. The Green Party also proposes a “creative self-employment program” which would turn the unemployed into “a leisure class” – a tone deaf proposal that fails to grapple with the structural factors driving unemployment or recognise the incredible creativity that the unemployed employ on a daily basis.
The Green Party brandishes a style of privileged white environmentalism perhaps best left in the privileged suburbs of Cape Town out of which it seems to have emerged. Without a serious rethink of how environmental issues intersect with questions of social and racial justice, such forms of environmentalism risk tarnishing the rest of the environmental movement with a white elitist brush.
While we’re talking about problematic forms of privileged white environmentalism, let’s turn to the Freedom Front Plus. Their manifesto calls for “a renewable energy revolution”. It has some of the strongest anti-fossil fuel language, calling for a move away from fossil fuels in energy and transportation. However, their party scores lowest on their commitment to justice and governance on the environmental scorecard, and one has to wonder whether their renewable energy revolution will take place only on their proposed “Boer Homeland”.
The Little Parties that Might
Some of the smaller parties contesting the election, bring a welcome breath of fresh air to the climate issue with some ambitious proposals. After the Green Party, COPE comes second on the environmental scorecard for their environmental policies. On climate change, a COPE spokesperson laid forward an appropriately ambitious set of targets, like moving away from coal before the end of the next decade; and banning new internal combustion engines by 2030 – a proposal similar to India’s, which would have major benefits both for our climate and our air quality.
COPE’s manifesto is somewhat vague on climate targets and does not quite offer a transformative vision of climate justice. However, they have been making climate change and renewable energy a point of emphasis on the campaign trail, demonstrating a willingness to prioritise the issue. At their manifesto launch, COPE leader Masiuoa Lekota, embraced solar saying that “The fire of tomorrow you will get from the sun, and you will cook from it, you will eat, and you will live much better – easier. Leave the coal – get [energy] from the sun.”
The UDM also makes some positive commitments related to the climate, calling for a Marshall Plan to rescue and conserve the environment – a proposal appropriately up to the scale of the ecological crises we face, which world leaders have long been calling for. Although their manifesto unfortunately only mentions climate change once, is vague, and doesn’t provide specify targets, the UDM’s commitment to the environment seems relatively genuine, especially given that UDM President Bantu Holomisa is also founder of the Champions of the Environment Foundation.
GOOD also makes some decent commitments to action on climate change, recognizing that wind and solar energy already provide cheaper and lower emission energy. They talk about the need to increase renewable energy, public transport and recycling, implement smart city planning and help individuals reduce their emissions. However, while these are relatively good suggestions, what the GOOD party lacks, like the UDM, is hard commitments and targets, making their manifesto a little fuzzy.
The new radicals on the block, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, have a draft manifesto devoid of reference to climate change. However, they have made public commitments to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, “without destroying the livelihoods of those employed in the fossil fuel sector”. Unfortunately, there’s no timeline for when that transition will occur. Additionally, how they implement their transition away from fossil fuels may not align well with those hoping that a transition to renewable energy would bring decentralised and democratised renewable energy – as they have called for the entire electricity sector to be nationalised.
Our Non-Climate Election: A Sign to Organise
With the major political parties offering weak climate action, we are a long way from making climate change the political and electoral issue it should be. Some of the smaller parties making positive commitments on climate change might be good places to send ones vote to help boost the voice and influence of parties that seem to take climate and environmental issues somewhat more seriously.
At a broad level, South Africa’s political landscape on climate change is deeply inadequate. The failure of our major political parties to put forward a transformative vision on climate justice is an indictment of our leaders willingness to take seriously the gravest threat facing global society. But it is also a failure of civil society to articulate and build political power around a transformative vision that situates climate justice within the struggles facing South Africa.
Polls show that South Africans overwhelmingly favour renewable energy, and civil society needs to turn that preference into political momentum and power. The sorry state of Eskom should provide a golden opportunity for climate justice organising, where the quintuple crises of load shedding, increasing energy costs, unemployment, pollution and climate change, should lead us to embrace a just transition to a more reliable, affordable, job boosting, cleaner, renewable energy future.
Here at 350Africa.org, we are working with civil society and grassroots groups around the country to make the elections a starting point for building political power around climate justice, rather than as the end point of political engagement. Around the country, groups are organising for climate justice and engaging their political parties, calling for climate action. Our aim is to build a powerful movement that can make climate justice a political priority before, during and after elections.
If we are not to face the same dismal political choice from our major political parties in 2024, it is time we got organised, and built a broad and powerful climate justice alliance across South African society. If we are to inspire South Africans to mobilise, we will have to put forward a bold and transformative vision of a just transition to a renewable energy future that brings power to all, and meaningfully tackles the deep inequality, poverty and unemployment we face. And with the clock ticking on climate change, we cannot wait until the next election to take action either.