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Cooling towers at disused coal-fired plant in Soweto, South Africa
Johannesburg, South Africa

Unlocking a Local Approach to Achieve Net Zero in South Africa

As South Africa rumps up its efforts to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the country has a long way to go owing to a broad range of issues. First and foremost is the longstanding electricity crisis which has been declared a “national state of disaster”; followed by resistance from industries, historical imperatives as well as a lack of awareness, and political will, amongst other things. In the wake of such overwhelming hurdles, just how realistic is that goal?

Christy Bragg, a conservationist, biologist and environmental consultant, highlighted that “South Africa is not unique in facing a difficult situation to keep people afloat whilst endeavoring to change the massive, inert, deeply complex system. What we need international aid givers to understand is the legacy of inequity and to approach the right facilitators to engage the communities’ perspectives.”

With 28 years to go, the world is keenly watching South Africa’s progress toward net zero — as Africa’s third-largest economy and the 12th-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide globally. Although the country has taken an active role in enabling a net zero regulatory environment, this just makes the underpinning architecture of net zero seem prosaic. But the reality is that there are competing needs at the heart of communities, most importantly jobs, local economic opportunities, and service delivery. With the sense of hopelessness, unlocking the ambition of communities to deliver a successful transition to net zero is a task at hand.

“We see our net zero ambitions as our developmental vision, which means that we can achieve net zero with the existing structural triple challenges of poverty, hunger and inequality. To do that, we have to develop innovative ways of implementing through partnerships and collaboration, underwritten by strong principles of inclusivity and restorative approaches,” noted Blessing Manale, head of communications for the Presidential Climate Commission (an independent, and multistakeholder body to oversee and facilitate a just and equitable transition towards a low-emissions and climate-resilient economy).

Any transition to net zero requires long-term ways of thinking, more agile structures for delivery as well as a consistent, dedicated and supportive approach that prioritizes involving communities directly in local action. Just like in the United Kingdom, while 82% of emissions are within local authorities’ sphere of influence, 30% of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions required to implement the Net Zero Strategy depend on local authority involvement. Allowing local authorities to be involved also permits communities to tailor their net zero approach to their strengths and needs, informed by the kind of extensive local engagement that the central government cannot undertake.

“The Presidential Climate Commission has on its part been consulting with the local government and communities through numerous engagements. We believe that community radio and grassroots media can push the bar on awareness, and we need to rethink of the repositioning of our community recreational and information hubs as potential centers of mobilization for action through mentorship’s, art, awareness, capacity building and exchange of knowledge and learning," said Manale.

To unlock the potential of local net zero growth, there is a need for strong relationships between the local government and its people, along with accountable systems both in planning and the responsibility to deliver certain aspects of net zero.

It is without a doubt that communities will see a fundamental shift from the systems of today including how people travel, the objects they use and the changes in how they generate and consume energy. The electricity crisis in the country is already forcing people to move to other sources of energy. For now, the private sector is taking the lead, particularly in renewable energy. Talking about the most recent projects, Growthpoint Properties now has 13.MW of installed solar capacity across 24 rooftops and carports. Also, the Trade Route Mall in Lenasia has installed 3.6MW solar panels over its parking lots. There are also a few players who are actively involved and challenging the government and industries to play their roles, including civil society and various practical, economically viable and commercially scalable low-carbon solutions.

These activities alone will not get South Africa to net zero; there is a need to tailor solutions to their local context. The government has a role in setting the bold, ambitious missions to get there and also pave the way in driving community-focused action which will not only lead to more local support but deliver better economic outcomes.

“In working on local solutions and actions, we need to ensure that the transitioning to net zero makes local government more responsive and accessible, and decision making is consultative. We need to make sure that they have access to diverse energy sources at an affordable price. Our just transition must inspire youth to take up new skills and technical disciplines and for community-owned enterprises to seek opportunity in small-scale energy generation," said Manale.

The other critical step to achieving net zero adoption in communities is to involve small businesses. Energy markets will go a radical transformation for both users and generators. Targeted assistance from the government can strengthen the desire to “take action” on net zero and enable SMEs to profit alongside larger companies.

“We have to provide alternatives or build capacity for SMMEs to deliver alternatives for household and industry power needs. We need awareness and communication from trusted sources to provide insight into the future impacts that are associated with the business-as-usual status vs the net zero transition," said Bragg.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published on 16 February 2023 in Pan African Visions and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner Image: Cooling towers at disused coal-fired plant in Soweto, South Africa / Credit: Jay Galvin via Flickr.