Were I not in a state-of-the-art lecture theatre part of the new engineering building at UCT, I might have wondered whether I had traveled back in time a decade.
The presentation of the OECD’s latest report on climate mitigation, ‘Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth’ offers little progress from how we framed the climate mitigation challenge in 2007. The glossy two page summary sheet summarised four key insights:
The first, accompanied by detailed bar charts, reveals that a low carbon growth path will have a net positive effect on GDP across the G20 in both 2021 (1%) and 2050 (2,8%). Given economists’ rather appalling track record of predicting GDP growth over any time period, together with financiers and politicians timeframes of between 3 months and 4 years, this does not strike me as worth the headline news spot.
Secondly the report finds that there is only a 10% increased cost of investing in climate compatible infrastructure as opposed to that required to meet global development needs otherwise. What is this hypothetical ‘other’ future we climate mitigation people love so much (‘business-as-usual’ is our favourite)? There has been absolutely nothing usual about the Trumps and Brexits globally, and Zuptafication locally. But the real kicker comes in the research disclaimer (not provided in the key findings) that the planned, development-as-usual infrastructure investment falls vastly short of what is required anyway. So we aren’t investing nearly enough, but its only going to cost 10% extra to make it climate compatible. Great argument says the Elephant in the room! As the presentation proposed – just put the stable and sensible policies in place and the investment will flow…
Third, globally we are investing in sufficient renewables, but are also building almost three times the amount of coal we can afford from a climate perspective. So this is useful, if not exactly entirely a revelation.
The final one is scarily obvious – that low income transitions will be country specific. Sure, but what does that mean for how we support and advocate for them??
Really? Is this the best we can do in 2017? Despite the ‘country specific’ key finding the presentation showed a stunning lack of awareness of context. ‘Its all about getting the policy environment right’, South Africa’s REIPPPP was given a big thumbs up – just do some more of that, we were told. Sure, right after we re-build our disintegrating national utility, work out what to do with the coal-miners who will lose their jobs, put our President and half his Cabinet in jail and find a cheap desalination plant to prevent Cape Town’s 3+ million residents from dying of thirst come September. No worries.
From where I sit, where the rubber hits the road for the climate mitigation challenge is not about technology or finance or stable policies or even rationale to act. Of course all of these are very important, and a huge amount of work by the global climate mitigation policy community has very usefully illuminated these aspects. But this challenge is a complex, wicked and systemic one. And as such involves aspects including how to act in the presence of powerful incumbents, understanding how policy translates into action, experimenting with how this action can take the issues of inequality, poverty, unemployment and climate mitigation forward together, and confronting the challenge of how we approach all of this in a state defined by complexity and rolling crisis. How, not what. For how long will we keep on ignoring this, and fine tuning our 2050 GDP predictions? In 2017 ours is a complex, dynamic, systemic world, and perspectives from a certain, mechanistic, knowable worldview are less and less helpful. In fact, they are increasingly harmful as they tie up the valuable capacity and resources required to produce them. We now need to venture into a different conversation altogether.
So then, to the South African climate mitigation policy community who know a thing or two about complexity and crisis, I say lets turn the microphone around: what are our ideas? What are aspects of a conversation that can speak to our context and take us forward in the emerging complexity of the twenty-first Century? And how can we put this unashamedly South African and ‘developmental’ conversation at the centre of our work?