Frightening climate change forecasts have cemented the environment as a global top priority issue, just this week discussed at UN climate change talks in Poznan, Poland. But the environment almost fell off the agenda of the Congress of the People’s (Cope) policy conference which kicks off in Bloemfontein on Sunday.
It was only at the last minute rescued by the Western Cape structure, which held a hastily convened policy conference meeting in Cape Town’s Seapoint suburb on Wednesday.
While the meeting, at which award-winning environmental editor Monica Graaff spoke, was poorly attended, Cope national policy co-ordinator Phillip Dexter said the environment was viewed by Cope’s policy team as one of their “top five” issues.
Dexter said it was an issue which could not sit in its own “silo” and had to be integrated into all policy formulation.
Provincial policy researcher Mphuthumi Ndabeni said Cope had realised the extent of their error in leaving environmental issues out of their national conference preparations, and therefore the Western Cape had been allocated “substantial time” to bring the other provinces up to speed in Bloemfontein.
Dexter said one of the challenges was to change the perception, held by many party members, that the environment was “seen purely a class issue” in which it was a matter of “the rabbits first or the people first”.
If the environment was not cared for, there would be neither rabbits nor people.
“It’s not an either/or issue,” he said.
If we were serious about tackling climate change, he said, the first target would be creating renewable energy solutions, which would mean confronting Eskom and the “coal monopoly”.
While this would upset the pro-industrialists in favour of cheap coal-based energy, one needed to take into account the real cost of cheap energy destroying the environment, leading to major costs over the long run.
“We need to transform the way business is done and change the notion of what constitutes a successful enterprise,” he said.
For instance, he said, the private sector had started applying a triple bottom line to its profit calculations, accounting for financial, social and environmental equity, but this had not been adopted by government, an institution which should be using the highest standards when it came to spending public money.
“The bar needs to be raised. We need … to integrate the environment in our economy. I’m trying to invent a new term like ‘econovironment’. I’m not sure if that works yet but let me work on it.”
In her talk Graaff sketched a brief outline of the challenges South Africa, and the world, faced due to climate change.
The outlook was bleak and the challenges “enormous”, she said, with South Africa one of the worst per-capita carbon emitters in the world.
However, she said things could change “remarkably quickly” if there was political will.
South Africa currently had very good environmental policies, she said, it was just that they were not being implemented properly, if at all, by the current government.
* Reporting by Steve Kretzmann.