• South Africa is recovering from the biggest natural disaster to hit the country in recent history.
  • The country is proactively responding to climate change through adaptation-focused regulation and green energy investments.
  • A just transition that protects both lives and livelihoods is the best strategy for South Africa.

In April 2022, heavy rains, flooding, and subsequent mudslides hit the KwaZulu-Natal coast in South Africa. While efforts are underway to establish the extent of the damage, hundreds of lives have been lost, with many more still missing. When visiting the disaster-struck areas around the city of Durban, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, shared his perspective on what lay behind the country’s worst natural disaster on record: “We no longer can postpone what we need to do – we must deal with climate change.”

The impact of the disaster was not equally felt. South Africa is the world’s most unequal country, and it was in the poorer regions where the consequences of the extreme weather were most severe. This impact visualises the plea of many African nations: Poor communities contribute the least to global pollution but are suffering the most.

Adaptation through climate law

Disasters such as these can mark a national conscience and drive forward the urgency to act. South Africans are, given the country’s unique history, people of civil action. In the wake of the disaster, thousands of volunteers are assisting in relief efforts, while climate justice movements are calling on the government to take practical action to address the climate crisis. These public calls aren’t falling on deaf ears, with the nation’s parliament currently deliberating a Climate Change Bill. If enacted, this law will place a legal obligation on all local and provincial governments to undertake climate change needs assessments, followed by climate change response implementation plans. These climate change response plans must, as a next step, be integrated into all existing social development plans.

The bill provides for adaptation objectives for the country. These objectives are specific green targets that the government must reach within stringent timeframes. The bill also provides for carbon taxes on heavy polluters and sectoral carbon budgets. Environment minister, Barbara Creecy, has called the bill “a dream come true” and that it brings all the country’s efforts to deal with climate change under one piece of legislation. Creecy has emphasized that “Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the regions of the world that is most vulnerable to climate change. This vulnerability poses an existential threat to human populations and biodiversity.”

A just transition

One of the results of COP26 was the launch of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP). This partnership between South Africa, France, Germany, the UK, and the USA, aims to support South Africa’s just transition to a low carbon economy and climate-resilient society. As Africa’s most industrialized nation and the world’s 7th largest coal producer, South Africa is the world’s 12th largest emitter of carbon dioxide (C02) and is responsible for nearly half of Africa’s C02.

The energy industry is liable for the largest share of emissions, with the country’s energy utility, Eskom, berated as the world’s most polluting power company. While 80% of the country’s energy is still generated from coal, the ongoing war in Ukraine is increasing global demand for South African coal.

With coal mining employing thousands, particularly in the north-eastern province of Mpumalanga, the impact of this industry on the environment and livelihoods is severe. Greenpeace has identified the city of Witbank, in Mpumalanga’s coal belt, as the world’s largest Nitrogen Dioxide hotspot, and a recent court ruling found that air pollution in the area infringes residents' constitutional right to an environment that isn’t harmful to their health. This just transition away from coal is a necessity not just for those suffering the consequences of extreme weather but for lives indebted to the economic clout of coal in regions like Mpumalanga.

A key mandate of the partnership involves the need for an equitable and inclusive transition for workers and vulnerable communities away from current economic dependencies. While coal mining has been a bedrock of the economy, South Africa is blessed with immense renewable energy potential for the just transition, boasting an average of 2,500 hours of sunshine per year and 4,5 to 6,6 kWh/m2 of radiation levels for solar power; and wind power potential of up to 6,7000 GWs.

The partnership aims to mobilize $8,5 billion over 3-5 years to bring South Africa’s carbon emissions within the Paris Agreement targets by shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Renewable energy has already created over 55,000 jobs in the country, and, in Mpumalanga alone, up to 72,000 energy transition jobs can be created through 2030. The adverse, unfortunately, is that roughly 74,000 jobs are at risk. Sustainable job alternatives for such workers are crucial.

Protecting lives and livelihoods

President Ramaphosa’s maxim amidst COVID-19 has been to ‘Protect lives and livelihoods’, speaking of the importance of protecting people both physically and economically. As the nation faces up to the challenge of climate change, this approach will remain relevant. Regulatory action like the Climate Change Bill and proactive green investment drives like the JETP will be crucial as the country gears up for what’s to come. The country’s power landscape is already transforming, with the World Economic Forum’s Regional Action Group for Africa predicting a power transition to net-zero will be driven by three-D’s: Decarbonization, Decentralization, and Digitalization. Decarbonization sees a move away from fossil fuels, led by major investments such as the Absa-AREP renewable investment platform. Decentralization marks the progress from centralized energy utilities to the incorporation of more independent power producers on the grid, while digitization involves leveraging digital technology to advance the transition.

Former president Thabo Mbeki famously said “I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas, and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.”

The floods in KwaZulu-Natal may embed a greater sense of urgency among all about transitioning away from fossil fuels and adapting to future threats. Protecting this uniquely beautiful country and the diverse people that call her home may perhaps be the biggest unifying challenge that awaits all South Africans.