Last year the citizens of the Republic of South Africa were preparing their hotels and conference centers for another wave of foreigners to descend upon their shores. This year the revelers of 2010’s World Cup competitions were replaced by the more stoic diplomats of a world climate negotiation (specifically the 17th Congress of the Parties to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change). Despite the change in dress (business suits over track suits) the results of the proceedings were similar: much fanfare, some victory, a good deal of disappointment.
For South Africa both events signaled a general desire to take to the world stage and bask in adoration for Africa’s most developed economy - and the newest member of the BRICS emerging economies consortium. These events, the climate conference in particular, also showed a willingness on the part of South Africa to accept a new, greater role in leading the governance of our planet.
Which is why the latest trends in the environment of South Africa are so troubling.
In the 2012 Environmental Performance Index, published in January by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy, where we are researchers, South Africa ranked 128 out of 132 rated countries, just above Iraq and just below Yemen. Our index ranks the countries of the world on aggregated measures of environmental performance, in sectors like air and water quality, forest and fisheries protection, regulation of pesticides, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Across the general board (though there are exceptions), South Africa is one of the world’s worst performers and the worst in Africa (which is no small feat, as Oluseyi Fanyanju’s article on Nigeria’s poor performance reveals).
What accounts for this trend?
Analysis of our index points to two key places where South Africa is lagging and, generally, getting worse: air quality and water quantity.
It should be no surprise that Africa’s greatest greenhouse gas emitter is experiencing worsening air quality. According to the International Energy Association, over 90% of the South African electricity supply is coal-generation based. Compare that to 42% in the United States (no world leader in this regard). Emissions from this antique power sector, combined with rapid industrialization around urban areas, has created air pollution “hot spots” across the country, where respirable particulate matter concentrations have reached historic unhealthy levels. Though the air situation is improving for some damaging pollutants (notably sulphur dioxides, which contribute to acid rain) air quality in South Africa hovers around the lowest in the world, at least when ecosystem effects are taken into account, and that is not likely to change soon.
Related to its unhealthy energy mix, South Africa - a naturally arid and water-stressed state, with annual rainfall six times lower than the global average – is seeing its small water supply spent on extracting the coal it burns (mining processes demand huge amounts of water) and fueling an expanding mining industry (gold mining in particular). A 2010 report by the Africa Earth Observatory Network found 16 of South Africa's 19 Water Resource Management Areas to be in a marginal or stressed state (meaning current clean water resources do not meet demand). “It seems clear,” the authors reported, “that water shortages are going to occur on a large scale in South Africa, even if the country follows a no-to-very-slow economic growth path.” They estimated that R360 billion, (15% of South Africa’s GDP in 2010) will need to be spent to provide adequate water infrastructure for human populations and stressed ecosystems, unless less water-intensive energy resources are invested in.
Reversing the trend
The social problems facing South Africa as it seeks to spur economic growth are immense, as is the chasm that exists between its haves and have-nots. South Africa has the highest income inequality of any African nation. And with an unemployment rate just over 24%, this fact isn’t likely to change anytime soon. (An OECD report predicted that the SA economy would have to grow by 7% for over 20 years to achieve a significant reduction in unemployment – current growth rates hover around 3%). As NPR reported earlier this year, a staggering 73% of those unemployed are under the age of 35.
But current environmental trends and an abysmal EPI ranking suggest that South Africa may be heading towards an ecological tipping point. If economic progress isn’t tied to improving environmental health and justice, South Africa may find it hard to fulfill its ultimate commitment to its citizens – to provide quality lives and real, sustainable livelihoods; recent protests and the spread of violence around unsafe working conditions and low pay at South African mines attest to a failure of current policies to deliver these basic rights.
Though its rivers go dry to fuel coal extraction, and its airways grow dark with smog, it isn’t too late for South Africa to reverse the trend. Real potential exists for renewable energy production across the country. And if South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, were to make good on their early commitment to invest in renewable energy, new solar and wind power projects could create desperately needed jobs and drive real human and environmental health benefits.
In his opening address at the world’s last climate conference, held in Durban, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, called on the leaders of the world to work together to “to save tomorrow today.” We agree. Now might be time for South Africa to lead the way.