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In times of crisis and beyond: the imperative for sustainable development

Many articles ask readers to imagine a post Coronavirus (COVID-19) world. However, it is difficult to do so when we have no idea when the pandemic will end. We do know that we are living through unprecedented times and a pandemic that will change our world as we know it. But it is difficult to speculate how the post COVID-19 world will look. This article focuses on lessons from the present. We argue that COVID-19 in South Africa has demonstrated the importance of striking an equitable balance between the pillars of sustainable development, namely environmental protection, social development and economic development.

South Africa has seen reduced carbon emissions during its national lockdown, which some perceive as an indirect gain for the environment. However, the lockdown has also brought about economic and social devastation, with many South Africans facing retrenchments, pay cuts and food insecurity. Unemployment figures are at an all-time high.

The Constitution and environmental statutes in South Africa require “secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development”. According to the Constitutional Court in Fuel Retailers Association of Southern Africa v Director-General: Environmental Management, Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Environment, Mpumalanga Province and Others), sustainable development provides a framework for reconciling socio-economic development and environmental protection. Sustainable development does not require the cessation of socio-economic development but seeks to regulate the manner in which it takes place. Rather, sustainable development entails the integration and reconciliation of environmental protection, social development and economic development, and the principle of inter-generational and intra-generational equity.

Ordinarily, striking a balance between the various pillars of sustainable development is a difficult task. Yet in a COVID-19 (and post COVID-19) world, the balance is even more difficult to strike. Lockdown measures have been aimed at the protection of human health (“saving lives” as the president has repeatedly stated), which is yet to be considered in the jurisprudence relating to sustainable development in South Africa, but arguably goes to the social development pillar. Yet, the economy has practically come to a standstill, inhibiting economic development and threatening job and food security, which both citizens and government appear to be beginning to resent. The environment might have achieved indirect gains, including reduced carbon emissions, although illegal mining and poaching have continued to be issues, lockdown notwithstanding.

The response to COVID-19 has therefore demonstrated the necessity of striking a balance between the pillars of sustainable development even during crises. Sustainable development must be considered at both a macro policy making level, by regulators, but also at a micro development level by project developers. If developers consider all three pillars and the need to balance them in respect of any planned development in terms of environmental and planning laws, applications for activities that impact the environment and require environmental authorisations, building in ecologically sensitive areas, waste laws and water laws, the more likely the project is to be approved by the regulator in question.

COVID-19 has also demonstrated the importance of seeing linkages between various issues that have traditionally been viewed as separate. For example, the knock-on effects of clearing indigenous vegetation, which has traditionally been perceived as an environmental issue, is now being acknowledged to expose humans to more viruses. Sustainable development aligns with this integrated approach since it requires a consideration of each pillar, their interrelationship and reconciliation between the pillars.  

It is unclear whether South African policy and regulation will push for economic development at all costs in order to kick-start the economy, or whether it will prioritise protection of vulnerable ecosystems, biodiversity, air quality and deforestation to improve health. There is also an opportunity for South Africa to adopt a greener path for its COVID-19 economic recovery strategy, which may make us more resilient in the long-run since the shift to renewable energy is gaining momentum across the globe in attempts to meet international commitments and obligations agreed to under the provisions of the Paris Agreement. However, this is likely to require legislative amendments to protect and encourage investment in and procurement of renewable energy. Regardless, government and developers will be required to consider and strike a balance between all of the pillars of sustainable development in rebuilding South Africa during and post-COVID. 

Stephen Levetan

Natural Resources and Environment | Exeuctive

+27 82 780 1555

Dalit Anstey

Natural Resources and Environment | Associate

+27 66 474 4466