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Urgent commitment needed to climate-proof cities for resilience

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Picture: REUTERS/Dipak Kumar – An Indian farmer looks towards the sky, while standing amidst his drought-stricken crop near Patiala in the northern state of Punjab July 17, 2002. If the green transformation is successful, it will result in a cleaner planet, less pollution, more robust economies, and healthier populations. The time to act is now, says Kershni Ramreddi.

By Kershni Ramreddi

Due to rising greenhouse gas concentrations and accumulated heat, the last few years have been the warmest on record. This year, millions have been impacted by extreme heat-waves, fires, droughts, cyclones and deadly flooding, which have cost trillions of rands – with Pakistan hardest hit in August-September, as a third of the country went underwater.

South Africa faced several symptoms of climate crisis, including Day Zero threats across the Eastern Cape and the KwaZulu-Natal floods of April 11 to13, 2022 and May 21 to 22, 2022, with record rainfall of 351mm and 267mm, respectively. Durban suffered devastating loss of life (most of the 400 who were killed came from our city), property, public infrastructure, and livelihoods. When the rain stopped, tens of thousands were left without water and electricity for days and, in some cases, weeks. We also lost the safe use of our beaches due to sewage line destruction (many still unrepaired), as well as rising levels of plastics and other pollution that washed up on the shoreline.

The flooding exacerbated the impact of the 2021 toxic chemical spill from the UPL warehouse in Cornubia because containment dams were breached. This led to yet more toxic pollution spewing into our rivers and ocean.

While we cannot control the weather, we can and should become much more resilient, with genuine adaptation investments to climate-proof our city so as to prevent the tragic consequences of the inevitable Rain Bombs and other severe weather events. The eThekwini municipality is always praised for adaptation, yet in reality there was terribly inadequate storm water drainage. The piping, roads and bridges were fragile. Too many houses had been built in flood plains and on unstable hills.

While governments around the world have failed to develop mitigation strategies in the highest-polluting economies, including South Africa, it is at the local level that the most harm is felt. Mozambique witnessed massive cyclones in Mozambique between 2000 and 2019, making it the world’s fourth most adversely affected country, even though it contributed practically nothing to the crisis.

If eThekwini officials ever become serious about the climate crisis, we would see more funding – and public-works jobs – in the construction and maintenance of critical infrastructure (especially drainage), improved public health, emergency services and early warning systems, properly-resourced disaster management, and associated plans and training support.

Ensuring minimal loss of life and infrastructural damage is a constitutional responsibility for our government – not a “nice to have” – in an age of climate change. Proper climate- proofing is both a fundamental human right of all South Africans and a critical necessity for our urban existence.

Developing the power for society to transition from an extractive, high-pollution version of racial capitalism into a regenerative, fair economy requires the implementation of a vision-led, integrated, and place-based set of principles, methods, and practices that we can term a genuine Just Transition. (Government and Eskom have tried to hijack the term, but we need not be distracted by greenwashing.)

A genuine Just Transition entails tackling production, consumption and disposal cycles comprehensively, aiming at a “zero-waste” approach. In order to establish new power structures for the future, we are demanding reparations and the correction of past wrongs, as was on the table in last month’s United Nations summit when the polluters’ payment of their “climate debt” was demanded by victims of extreme weather events.

For our own transition to be fair and just, we must acknowledge South African elites’ climate debt to the victims of the Rain Bombs here in Durban. Given our economy’s significant reliance on coal in the mining, industrial, and power sectors, South Africa’s transition will be among the most difficult and most necessary.

Hence, the most progressive trade unions and environmental justice organisations have joined forces in the Climate Justice Coalition to demand, as one example, socially-owned renewable energy, not privatised power production, as at present. However, achieving a just transition has proven difficult due to government’s lack of resolute action to implement effective policies, given how wedded the leadership is to fossil fuel companies. Both Shell and its two main local partners – Johnny Copelyn’s Impact Oil and Phuthuma Nhleko’s Pembani – have given many millions of rands as donations to the ruling party and Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidential campaign.

The same is true elsewhere, as shown at the COP27 climate summit, where 672 oil and natural gas lobbyists had prominent roles. The host country Egypt’s ambition to become a significant natural gas exporter was a major deterrent to the summit, declaring the need for a phase-out of fossil fuels. In Dubai in 2023, the COP28 will be even more extreme as a party scene for fossil capital.

One result is that the COP27 did not reject some governments’ nonsensical stances that methane gas is a transition fuel. In reality, methane is 85 times more potent than CO2 over the next twenty years.

Moreover, due to expanding fossil fuel exploration, such as is intended in the Drakensberg, Karoo and offshore, some of the poorest and most climate-affected peoples will lose their land, water, and cultural heritage. Without taking into account the adverse effects, many African countries are prepared to increase the production, refining, transport and consumption of fossil fuels.

The rush for gas will ruin the climate, communities, and local environments. The majority of these investments in fossil fuels are made for export, in any case, rather than to provide energy to African people who don’t have sufficient buying power. The Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.5 degree limit of temperature increase this century requires a halt to all new fossil projects, and requires financial institutions to stop funding fossil fuels and to instead fund renewable energy.

If global warming persists, even more catastrophic disasters and long-term weather pattern disruptions will occur, destroying lives and livelihoods and upending societies, economies and governments. Mass migration of “climate refugees” is likely for a fifth of the world’s population this century.

We must have the courage to believe we can envision and create a society vastly different from the one we currently live in. Together, let’s find the willpower to create a society where government works for and plans with its citizens rather than with large polluting corporations whose greed for riches is bringing our planet ever closer to a climate emergency.

By taking immediate action, we can not only avert the worst but also decide on a better future. If the green transformation is successful, it will result in a cleaner planet, less pollution, more robust economies, and healthier populations. The time to act is now!

Kershni Ramreddi is Energy and Just Transition Project Officer at South Durban Community Environmental Alliance.