Sustainability or transformation? City futures in Cape Town and the global South

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager
Cape Town, 22 September 2014

In 2012, one year after the launch of Johannesburg's 2040 vision, a 2040 vision called 'ONE CAPE 2040' was similarly approved by the City of Cape Town. In both of these and other City reports, 'sustainability' has become a core dimension of policy and legislation. Sustainability, here, is largely understood as a 'green economy', and related to climate change and issues such as energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and increased water stress.

While Johannesburg is putting in place a new transport infrastructure, Cape Town has numerous other accolades to display its 'green' credentials. Cape Town became the first in Africa to develop an "Energy and Climate Change Strategy" in 2006; and in another first in Africa it was named by the Ethisphere Institute as one of the top 10 cities in the world to become a future global sustainable centre, namely for its 10 percent residential solar power and 10 percent renewable sources goals for 2020. In another first, the City also began in 2008 to purchase a small amount of electricity from the Darling Wind Farm, South Africa's (SA) first commercial wind farm (figure 1). August 2014 also saw the opening of a solar PV factory, the newest and most modern on the continent; and in a socially significant first, SA's first 'off-the-grid' taxi rank opened in the informal suburb of Wallacedean on the margins of Cape Town, which produces its own electricity from rooftop solar (PV) panels.

These initiatives no doubt herald exciting beginnings; yet they also sit uneasy; for 'green', that apparently most benign of adventures, is deeply political. Fewer than two percent of 'climate change shocks' have affected rich countries (the biggest culprits), while the poorest everywhere (the least responsible) from China to Africa to Central America have often seen devastation; and large amounts are dedicated toward the former, but hardly anything toward the latter.

In South Africa and the global South, therefore, the 'green' model should not uncritically reference global Sustainable Development trends only, but should also appropriately address their own unsustainable trends. For example, most informal settlements in South Africa are on flood-prone land, experience extreme weather and fires from dense and sub-standard dwellings (figure 2), are susceptible to disease, and also generate pollution by wastewater and burning of fossil fuels. In such contexts, environmental integrity becomes almost inseparable from social ethics, and sustainability becomes almost impossible without transformation. If left unchecked, 'green' may well turn into a new kind of hegemony, justifying further investment in the wealthiest areas at the expense of the poorest (figure 3).

To be sure, investment is needed to make the renewable energy equipment market in South Africa cost-competitive in the long term. However, there are only about 25 years left of the easily extractable coal reserves upon which South Africa is largely dependent, and the country's renewable energy industry is one of the fastest-growing in the world with investments of around R140bn ($14bn). Thus, increasingly, a balance will be needed between investor returns and the needs of the broader society. Here the state, public and multi-stakeholder participation, and stakeholder partnerships all have a role to play.

Returning to the Ethisphere Institute's 'top 10 in the world' sustainability ranking; it also added the following in its report: "While much of the city is developing nicely, a good chunk of it remains in squalor conditions. This is a major obstacle." If 'a good chunk of squalor' seems little cause for derailing a 'top in the world' status, what then — we must ask — is 'sustainability', in Cape Town, the global South, and the world? And who or what does it sustain?

Photos: Figure 1: City of Cape Town. Figure 2: DMISA. Figure 3: Author.

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