Economic development Sustainability

3 myths about the climate economy

The New Climate Economy Report dismisses the idea that addressing climate change and growing our economies are mutually exclusive – in particular in developing countries wanting to foster resilience, writes Cape Town Partnership programme coordinator Sibusiso Tshabalala.

There is a shifting discourse on climate change. It is a shift away from the “distant crisis” narrative, to a narrative that considers climate change as a means to align the global demands of economic growth with the challenges of environmental sustainability. “Climate change is here. It is happening to us now. It is not something that is going to affect us in the future,” said climate change activist Ferial Adam at a climate change demonstration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate’s New Climate Economy Report dismisses the idea that countries must choose between addressing climate change and growing their economies. The report provides evidence of how technological change is creating windows of opportunity for environmental sustainability and how new investment in green infrastructure can drive economic growth in the developing world. Here are three key lessons for Cape Town about resilience from the New Climate Economy Report.

Myth 1: rapid urbanisation is the problem

Actually, cities are centres of opportunity for growth and sustainability. An increased emphasis on cities as centres of localised responsibility and opportunity has an important bearing on economic growth and sustainability. The New Climate Economy Report classifies 500 cities into three broad categories: emerging cities, global megacities and mature cities. It argues that these cities will account for over 60% of global income growth and half of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions growth between now and 2030. To pursue economic growth as well as scale up efforts to reduce carbon emissions, an emerging city like Cape Town will need to improve resource productivity, through cost-effective investments in building energy efficiency, waste management, transit and other measures. This responsibility is coupled with opportunity. As emerging cities experience population growth and strain on their resources, they’re uniquely positioned to pursue local economic policies that respond to urbanisation’s key challenges, while creating economic opportunity for residents.

Myth 2: going green is expensive

Actually, investment in a low-carbon economy can be modest and is getting cheaper. South Africa’s National Development Plan, the New Growth Path as well as the 2012 National Infrastructure Plan, place an emphasis on a targeted investment in infrastructure as a means to drive development and economic growth. Conventionally, infrastructure investment for a high-carbon economy is significantly higher than that of a low-carbon economy. The New Climate Economy Report suggests that governments around the globe could cut their infrastructure spend on transport, energy and water systems significantly from U$6 trillion a year, to just $270 billion a year. The key? Stimulate innovation through research, development and funding incentives. For the next three years, the South African government will spend R827 billion on building new and upgrading existing infrastructure. How much of this money could be saved if the National Infrastructure Plan was modelled on a low-carbon economy? With the growing pressures on South Africa’s capital expenditure, there’s an opportunity to reduce government spending (on infrastructure) by modelling economic growth policies and activities on a low-carbon economy. A low-carbon economy also has the potential of driving innovation in infrastructure development by allowing small and medium enterprises to innovate cost-efficient scalable and sustainable infrastructure solutions.

Myth 3: it’s government’s responsibility

Actually, partnerships between government, business and civil society are imperative. Government’s role in creating policy and regulations is often met with scepticism, and at times, scorn by business and civil society. The regulatory environment is either seen as too rigid – inflexible to social and economic demands – or as too loose – unaware of the potential risks and challenges. The New Climate Economy Report asserts the role government plays in setting out policy frameworks for climate change and economic growth. The report however argues that the two elements (climate change and economic growth) cannot be seen as separate. Rather, policymaking should adopt a more integrated approach, including environmental risks and opportunities into core policy strategies and decision-making processes across all sectors. The role of business will increasingly move away from exploiting the weaknesses in the regulatory environment to scaling up innovation in key low-carbon and climate-resilient technologies. This is guaranteed to build a bigger and more inclusive market for the green economy. One that is differentiated and consists of more than just the usual ‘big players’. Civil society on the other hand continues to serve an important function in lobbying both government and business to act responsibly. There also exists an opportunity for civil society to play a more influential role. As a potential neutral-broker, civil society can play a role in public education and research (on climate change and economic growth), and promote and develop long-lasting civic-minded agreements that galvanise citizens themselves to act responsibly. An example of such a partnership is the Western Cape Provincial Government’s 110% Green Initiative. The programme brings together policymakers, green entrepreneurs and activists to explore strategies to build a platform that catalyses potential – through its flagship projects – for the green economy in the Western Cape.

What is to be done, Cape Town?

As early as 2006, the City of Cape Town considered climate change as a strategic challenge and driver for development and economic growth. The plans and strategies are wide-ranging: the Cape Town Climate Change and Energy Strategy in 2006, the Action Plan for Climate Change and Energy in 2011, and the Cape Town Partnership Low-Carbon Strategy in 2014. These all advocate for decisive action to reduce carbon-emissions, and increased product and service innovation to meet the demands of a green economy. There is no shortage of strategies and action plans. Instead, there exists a real opportunity, for Capetonians all over the city, to bring these plans and strategies alive. It starts by altering everyday behaviour through small interventions like carpooling and the increased use of public transport. Consumers also have the power to influence the local food economy, as discussed in The Food Dialogues Report. Applying our support to entrepreneurs who are developing innovative low-cost solutions geared for a low-carbon economy – like the Better Living Challenge – is also important. This is where the real action lies: an increased appreciation of our own individual actions and seizing opportunities to create new products and services for a city more attuned to resilience and economic growth.

Read more about climate change and resilience

  • The Food Dialogues Report: creating a healthier, more conscious and just food system in the Mother City
  • Trees have an economic, social and environmental value to every city, writes Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana
  • 110% Green: Food security and climate change are two serious reasons to address the massive worldwide problem of food waste
  • When it comes to African cities, socio-economic development needs to work together with climate change measures, reports UN-Habitat
  • Density Syndicate: How can Cape Town move from a closed city limited by apartheid planning, to an open city catalysed by the benefits of densification?


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