As We Strive To Create A Sustainable Future, We Should Not Forget History's Lessons

Last month, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) made history by passing South Africa's inaugural legislation that specifically addresses the impacts of climate change.
South Africa Environment
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Last month, the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) made history by passing South Africa's inaugural legislation that specifically addresses the impacts of climate change. It's been a long time coming, and as momentum culminates in President Cyril Ramaphosa's signing of the Climate Change Bill, it is imperative that we think laterally about the Bill's ramifications for the medium term and also about its impact on future generations, who will be its beneficiaries.

As Minister Creecy explained in a Parliamentary debate last year, the Bill will ensure our country has a legal instrument to build resilience to the impacts of climate change and reduce our emissions in ways appropriate to our national circumstances and development pathways. Seeing the Bill come to life is a proud moment for our nation as we seek to facilitate the development of a robust climate change response and foster a sustainable, low-carbon economy and society over the long term.

South Africa is a signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Paris Agreement. As such, we have a legal responsibility and obligation to coordinate and harmonise our policies, plans, and programmes to ensure that national, provincial, and local governments act on climate change risks and associated vulnerabilities. We can also lead an African-centred climate change response and legal framework that our African neighbours can build on.

Of course, responding to climate change is not just the responsibility of the government alone. The Bill also formally establishes the Presidential Climate Commission as a statutory body to mobilise communities, organised labour, business, and civil society to respond to future challenges.

The Just Transition Framework developed by the Presidential Climate Commission aims to ensure that climate actions adhere to procedural, restorative, and distributive justice principles. Minister Creecy is particularly keen to ensure that as our country develops our vision of a Just Transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient society, we don't just tick the environmental boxes but that no one—especially vulnerable communities—is left behind.

The fine print of the Climate Change Bill still needs to be read carefully, and the details ironed out, such as sectoral emission targets, a listing of greenhouse gases (GHGs), allocating a carbon budget, introducing a climate change finance mechanism, and developing adaptation and mitigation strategies.

With abundant solar, wind and mineral resources, we are positioning ourselves as a leader on the continent in renewable energy, green hydrogen, and sustainable industrialisation. As scientific evidence and rationale advocate for 'green' technologies to replace the fossil fuel mechanics that drove industrialisation in previous decades, we must consider the interconnected nature of global energy systems, economic factors, and geopolitical influences when crafting energy policies.

I am fascinated by historical idiosyncrasies and anecdotes, and as I was mulling our African Just Energy Transition, I was struck by the lessons offered by the horse manure (yes, you read that correctly!) crisis that gripped Britain in 1894.

At the time, horses were the primary mode of transportation, and it's estimated that 50,000 horses congested the city streets daily. London's future did not look clean, sanitary, or sustainable. In fact, The London Times warned that a time was nearing when every street would be submerged under nine feet of manure if new means of transportation were not found. Manure in the streets compounded the spread of diseases like typhoid fever, as the filth attracted swarms of flies.

London wasn't alone in this dilemma; New York confronted a similar predicament. Governments introduced taxes to contain the problem, but this didn't work. Thankfully, necessity is the mother of invention. Enter motor transport, spearheaded by Karl Benz's Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1885, which became the first mass-produced car unveiled in 1886. Yet, Henry Ford's groundbreaking assembly line method revolutionised car manufacturing, making automobiles accessible to the masses.

Simultaneously, electric trams and motor buses emerged, supplanting horse-drawn equivalents. By 1912, the seemingly insurmountable manure issue was vanquished as cities worldwide bid farewell to horse-drawn transport, embracing motorised vehicles as the new norm for transportation and carriage.

In an unforeseen turn of events, the advent of the automobile industry, while revolutionary in its time, has also resulted in toxic carbon emissions affecting the quality of life, the environment and the cleanliness of our cities. As the decades have passed, it's evident that history repeats itself, with governments now attempting to address the climate crisis with regulations for the private and public sectors that call for us all to clean up our manure, as it were.

While imposing penalties and taxes for carbon emissions may not represent the optimal long-term solution, it is serving as a catalyst for innovation among visionaries and pioneers akin to the likes of Ford and Benz. Much like the birth of the automobile industry, this is spurring the creation of solutions and industries that promise a cleaner, more sustainable future. Admittedly, only some of the intricacies have been ironed out, but hindsight offers perfect vision. The next generation may cast blame on us, but for now, our focus must be on leveraging our knowledge to mitigate this issue as effectively as possible.

Amidst these challenges, a burgeoning industry in renewable energies has emerged. While it's acknowledged that the renewable energy sector may introduce its own set of challenges, as Jane Goodall, the well-known anthropologist, remarked, "The greatest danger to our future is apathy." Human resilience and determination consistently drive progress, particularly amid looming dire consequences.

In seeking to solve and mitigate the climate change challenge, we must be mindful of historical lessons and that we will also need to prepare for the unintended and yet unknown consequences of our climate change responses.

*Nott is the Head of the Africa Practice at Norton Rose Fulbright and specialises in energy deals

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