Supporting article K: Before we get too caught up in ‘green or clean technologies’, we should first do what we can to conserve our existing natural recourses.
Seeking greener pastures
While efforts to combat climate change can benefit our economy, more can be achieved with focused conservation projects, write Tracey Cumming and Tanya Abrahamse
Mar 24, 2010 10:51 PM | By Tracey Cumming and Tanya Abrahamse
The Big Read: Restoring and conserving our natural resources can stimulate rural economies, create rural and urban jobs, and, as a spin-off, support carbon sinks and help maintain critical ecosystem services vital to the economy.
“Investing in a green economy also supports rural development”
Such activity can potentially contribute significantlyto the economy, and should receive more attention.
“Green jobs” and the “green economy” have become buzzwords for 2010.
The term “green economy” describes a shift in the economy towards a reduced environmental impact, as well as growing new economic activity in ecosystem goods and services.
“Green jobs” make up the labour component of the green economy. In a country desperate for job creation, it is reassuring to see that the state is looking at such job creation. The major focus of the green jobs discourse, both in South Africa and internationally, seems to be on developing and building the necessary technology and infrastructure for climate change mitigation.
This is a critical and necessary focus for a country such as ours, which is releasing disproportionately large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
However, the discourse has focused very little on the other side of the green economy – the side focused on restoring and benefitting from our natural resources, and the side which is quite likely to provide the bulk of the green jobs and address poverty reduction, particularly in rural areas.
In short, natural capital is the store of ecosystems and biodiversity that has been banked for millennia and that ultimately we rely on to survive. Just how important is natural capital? It’s critical.
We know we can’t survive without fresh air and clean water, neither of which we have figured out a way of replicating at any reasonable cost. Fresh air and clean water are direct products of healthy ecosystems.
In economic terms, we should be living off the interest of our natural capital. However, we are rapidly digging into the capital itself, depleting the base upon which we survive.
Clean water, for example, delivered at the right time in the right quantities (not in fits of floods and droughts) is a critical issue for South Africa, and will become even more critical over the next few decades as demand increases and supply, according to climate change model predictions, becomes more unstable.
Invasive alien trees consume vast amounts of water and clog river systems. Clearing these plants from catchment areas allows more water to flow into the system where it can be utilised. In turn, these uprooted plants can be made into useful products for sale.
Wetlands also play a role in water provisioning – both in cleaning polluted water and acting as a sponge to regulate the flow of water. Drained, dredged, eroded and alien-infested wetlands are not able to perform this function.
While maintaining our built infrastructure is necessary (fixing leaking pipes received special mention in the recent State of the Nation speech), maintaining our “green infrastructure” is just as important.
Enter two of South Africa’s expanded public works programmes: Working for Water; and Working for Wetlands. These programmes remove thirsty invasive trees and restore rivers and wetlands, while providing job opportunities and skills training to the unemployed.
They provide a safety net for the thousands who do not have access to formal employment, many of whom live in rural areas.
The challenge is to build on this foundation to create long-term employment and enterprise development.
There is another idea emerging in South Africa around the issue of water and natural capital, and it speaks directly to a green economy. It goes something like this: Large quantities of our water have their source in poor, rural, communal areas, where they flow through regions that have been overused and degraded. This has an impact on the quality and quantity of the water that reaches our dams. What if we paid the people living on the land to restore it, improving water quality and quantity?
But natural capital isn’t just about water. Along with water security, ensuring food security will be a major challenge facing South Africa – a problem exacerbated by climate change. Natural vegetation, left intact, protects agricultural crops from pest infestation, provides pollination services and protects against erosion – particularly for small-scale farmers. Contour-ploughing protects soil integrity, and low tillage farming methods lock carbon into the soil.
Communicating and encouraging these practices requires extension and support services to rural areas dependent on agriculture – much-needed services that are also job-absorbing and SMME-supporting.
For a country that relies heavily on ecotourism, managing our nature reserves and national parks has a direct impact on our economy, with significant knock-on effects into the private sector creating additional green jobs through ecotourism ventures. Managing our coastal zones and estuaries – nursery sites for many commercial fish stocks – supports our fishing industry.
Ensuring that river banks and wetlands remain unploughed helps to reduce flood damage to human property and settlements, thereby mitigating major costs to both public and private coffers. Ensuring the survival of wild plants used for medicine, food, fodder and cut flowers underpins a massive economic sector.
Many of the activities described above are labour intensive, requiring both unskilled and skilled labour, and contributes to the green economy.
Investing in a nature-based green economy will also support rural development, and support the broader economy.
Why isn’t this side of the green economy getting as much attention as climate change mitigation projects? Perhaps it’s because our different sectors work in silos – our engineers aren’t trained to recognise the importance of green infrastructure; traditional economics assumes natural resources to be in unlimited supply; and GDP accounting does not acknowledge investments and depletions of natural capital.
So the issue of such green jobs – despite some historical successes such as Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US during the Depression – is neglected.
Nevertheless, we hope South Africa’s creative thinking can be brought to bear on this exciting area, and action taken.