Thursday, 8 December 2011

Translating willpower into action: a challenge for the “African COP”.

It’s not everyday you get to see Jacob Zuma, Nicholas Stern, Rajendra Pachauri, Jean Ping and various Nobel peace laureates sitting around a table, chatting about the future of the world. But this is how my second day of COP started – at something called a “high level dialogue” – a discussion on adaptation and sustainability for Africa between policy makers and scientists.

What was really encouraging was the nature of the event: both scientists and politicians sitting around a table and acknowledging each other (or at least appearing to). More often than not in the climate discussions there has been a separation of the two actors: the scientists presenting the hard, cold facts, with the politicians squabbling over who’s responsible for what, who owes who, and how to get the best deal.

The dialogue was focusing on adaptation, which is one of Africa’s most important issues: how do we adapt our industry (mostly reliant on the natural environment) around inevitable changes in climate and weather patterns? The swirling of big brains around the table were tangible: these guys know a lot of stuff and can present it eloquently. Amongst the discussion were ideas that the re-shuffling of economies to be more eco-friendly should happen and be a “win-win” situation, that there needs to be more research coming from African institutions and especially (thanks to Naledi Pandor’s remarks) indigenous knowledge, that political will and transparency are needed.
At the "high level dialogue" - political will, scientific knowledge

It was great to listen to the issues being discussed so openly and also being agreed upon: I came out of the session feeling uplifted and hopeful. But later I started to think, “what about action?”. The political will to take action is there. The scientific facts are there. But why does action not seem to be happening?

Perhaps, I found myself thinking, our political systems are just too archaic to deal with rapid changes and action. After all, there is a huge dichotomy: on the one hand, there are the problems, and on the other, fantastic solutions. Why are they not being carried out?

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see Norbert Röttigen, the German minister for the environment, speak on Germany’s energy policy for the future. Some of my doubts, at least, about archaic political systems were disputed. Germany is one of the most progressive countries in terms of their energy policy. Not only are they talking about change, but they are actively carrying it out.

Germany is a hugely industrialised country, reliant on using large amounts of electricity. However, it is spearheading renewable energy and is fully committed, both politically and on the ground, to changing from fossil fuels to renewables.

What is interesting to note (not forgetting that my view is slightly superficial, coming from the outside), is the fact that whilst Germany is using a similar political and economic system to much the rest of the rest of the world (and that with a conservative government!), it is being a lot more effective about institutionalising changes to it’s energy policy. Why is this so different and what can the South African government do to follow in their footsteps, so that the change on the ground is actually carried out?

Of course, South African society is very different so Germany – we’re much less industrialised, have a huge vested interest in producing cheap coal, and face substantial inequality and poverty. But what would our country start to look like if the government were as dedicated, not only to talking about changing, but actually putting in the sweat and grime to carry it out?

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