SA in the green when it comes to its environmental goals

The government’s climate policy is on track, contrary to the critics who misunderstand the realities of governance, writes Minister Edna Molewa.

The government’s climate policy is on track, contrary to the critics who misunderstand the realities of governance, writes Minister Edna Molewa.

Patrick Bond’s analysis of South Africa’s environmental policy, on the premise that “development of a climate policy is relatively simple”, is misplaced. It does not take into account the realities of governance: competing national priorities mean any funding decisions have to be made based on the most pressing areas of need.

Like any other government department, the department of environmental affairs makes decisions on the funding of implementation agencies with this very critical factor in mind. Ensuring that the government’s commitments to sustainable development, socioeconomic development and environmental protection are met requires making tough financial decisions.

It is a stretch to equate balancing a budget either with what Bond terms “Molewa’s defunding of her climate responsibilities” or with his suggestion that the department acts at the behest of “crony capitalism”.

First, the department’s baseline allocation by the national treasury was cut by 1% and 2% respectively for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 financial years. Additional funding (above the baseline allocation) was received for specific existing programmes, mainly infrastructure.

Like all other government departments, in December 2013 we implemented cost containment measures. This has meant reprioritising operational budgets and exploring different approaches to achieve our objectives and targets. Clarifying these issues is vital to ensure that not just key stakeholders but also the public at large have the correct understanding of the government’s response to the threat and its potential impacts, which pose a major threat to sustainable development, economic growth and the quality of life.

Contrary to Bond’s analysis, South Africa is not at risk of not meeting its international obligations regarding climate change or its attendant priority, greenhouse gas emissions monitoring and reduction.

Our national climate change response policy guides the government’s approach to climate change impacts and the country’s transition to a climate-resilient, low-carbon, mitigating economy. It represents our commitment to adapt to climate change and our contribution to the global mitigation effort. This includes the introduction of ­sectoral emission reduction targets and the use of a carbon budget.

Bond’s statements that “most countries have accurate measurement mechanisms [for greenhouse gases], not us” and that we are “unable to formulate baselines and monitor emissions versus targets set” should be challenged.

South Africa’s national greenhouse gas inventory remains one of the most progressive national emissions inventories of those produced by developing countries. It is the result of a long-standing relationship between industry and the department of environmental affairs. Any sensible and realistic greenhouse gas policy relies on working with industry, as we balance environmental management with the social and economic needs of the country.

We are constantly improving our monitoring, reporting and evaluation of greenhouse gases. We remain one of a few countries to have developed an emissions reporting system able to ­handle the reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants simultaneously in a single web-based reporting platform – the National Atmospheric Emission Inventory System (NAEIS).

This system has been piloted with several large emitting industry sectors. Regulations to support reporting by industry to the NAEIS are to be finalised in the near future. This is yet another indication that environmental monitoring has not been affected by budget cuts.

A reduction of funding allocated to the South African Weather Service was the direct result of treasury budget cuts imposed across departments. Like other affected departments, the weather service has to reprioritise its operational budget.

The department continues to invest in the weather service, including about R300-million towards infrastructure investment over the past five years. The service’s radar network has been recapitalised, with a high-performance computer to support operations in the process of being acquired.

The global atmospheric watch station referred to in Bond’s article continues to be an internationally recognised centre of excellence. It provides reliable and quality scientific information for baseline setting, risk mitigation and other needs-related greenhouse gas emissions.

The project is fully funded as part of the department’s air quality programme. Funding ­supporting the station is ring-fenced and has been neither reduced nor affected by the budget cuts.

The weather service will continue to execute its greenhouse gas monitoring mandate – assisting the government in meeting its national and international obligations.

The department is also working on the establishment of desired emission reduction outcomes per sector in order to facilitate the transition to a lower-carbon economy. It promotes sustainable development by prioritising climate change responses that have significant mitigation benefits as well as significant economic growth, job creation and poverty alleviation benefits.

The National Development Plan (NDP) has also set emissions targets for the country. We are taking bold practical steps in this regard. The renewable energy independent power producers programme is one the largest of its kind – and continues to feature prominently on the global energy landscape. It has the potential to dramatically reduce the carbon intensity of South Africa’s electricity and hasten the transition to a lower-carbon economy.

On the matter of electricity, it is incorrect to say that Eskom has been given an “exemption” by the department with regards to compliance with air quality standards. Though there are transitional arrangements to cater for industries in existence before the standards were set, it should not be concluded that extending compliance time frames will necessarily result in exemptions. Each application for a postponement to comply has to be accompanied by an atmospheric impact report to enable the assessment of the facilities’ impact on the environment.

Following its application, Eskom was requested by the department to submit additional information. This has been received and is being reviewed.

The department of environmental affairs does not “turn a blind eye to other pollution violations”. In terms of the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act, and as part of their atmospheric emission licence obligations, ­companies must report atmospheric emissions (including greenhouse gas emissions) at least once a year. Sasol and Eskom operations are licensed activities and regularly report emissions.

Action has been taken and successfully concluded against major “offender” companies such as Bumatech in Gauteng, Independent Foundries in Johannesburg and Blue Sphere/Ocwen in Ekurhuleni. We have also worked on and concluded compliance issues with ArcelorMittal’s Vanderbijlpark plant.

On the issue of alternative sources to meet South Africa’s growing energy needs, it is correct that the NDP supports “enabling exploratory drilling to identify economically recoverable coal seam and shale gas reserves” – notably, though, it adds that “environmental investigations will continue to ascertain whether sustainable exploitation of these resources is possible”. The NDP supports the need for South Africa to develop alternative sources to meet our growing energy needs, all the while taking environmental considerations into account.

Operation Phakisa, convened by the presidency, is a pioneering programme aimed at accelerating economic transformation and development. In its first stage, it will focus on two sectors: health and the oceans economy. Among the selected growth areas identified are marine transport and manufacturing, tourism, fisheries and aquaculture, renewable energy, marine protection services and offshore oil and gas.

That the department of environmental affairs is the lead department on this first phase of the project is indicative of this government’s placing of environmental considerations at the heart of its policies.

Ahead of the United Nations climate summit being held during the UN general assembly in New York next week, the answer to those who question whether South Africa has sufficient measures in place to address the threat posed by climate change is simple. 

We would be the first to acknowledge that a lot more needs to be done. We are constantly addressing issues to do with climate change – mostly behind the scenes. This leads to the incorrect impression, alluded to in Bond’s analysis, that ­neither the ANC nor the government is vocal on this issue.

Whether it’s air quality monitoring, enforcement and compliance, or acting as the final appeals authority on the issuing of environmental impact assessments for mining-related activities, our list of successes should not be underestimated or rubbished.

Our track record speaks for itself.

Edna Molewa is the minister of environmental affairs

 

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