All mouth and no trousers?

Last week Marthinus van Schalkwyk enjoyed what must surely be a novel experience for any Cabinet minister when his announcement on South Africa’s new strategic direction and framework for climate policy met with almost unanimous approval.

Van Schalkwyk was lauded by everyone from green NGOs to opposition parties for a policy that—with its commitment to a reduction in emissions from 2020 and an absolute decline to below 600-million tons of C02 from 2030—goes further than any commitment made by the United States government.

It also puts South Africa at the front of the field among developing nations, which is “a major change from the previous defence of business-as-usual based on our developing-country status”, said Richard Worthington of the World Wildlife Fund South Africa (WWF-SA).

The policy also promises zero-carbon electricity, equal usage of renewable and nuclear energy and a “pro-growth, pro-development and pro-jobs strategy”.

Worthington said that if the proof is indeed in the pudding, “to date we have been discussing whether we really should make pudding. We now have the basics of a recipe, though not the actual amounts or cooking times. These should come through the policy and legislation that government has committed to adopt in 2010, as well as through international commitments to be finalised in Copenhagen in December 2009 in the post-2012 new global deal on climate change.”

The mooted carbon tax has even been lauded by political opponents such as Gareth Morgan, the DA’s spokesperson on environmental affairs, although he cautioned that the proceeds of such a tax should be ring-fenced for spending on climate-related research and development. He said that the approach should be more carrot than stick, offering incentives such as tax breaks for buyers of hybrid cars, which would fuel demand and allow car manufacturers to benefit from economies of scale.

But in a country awash with fine policies and good intentions, the real question is whether the plan will ever be implemented. “The Long-Term Mitigation Scenario will simply remain rhetoric unless real resources are directed to energy efficiency and renewable energy, neither of which has been given the [necessary] attention or government budgets in the past,” said Lance Greyling, environmental and energy spokesperson for the Independent Democrats.

Greyling said the best thing government can do is to set realistic feed-in tariffs to kickstart the renewable energy generation market. “If government set a feed-in tariff of about 70 c/kWh for wind energy and 80c/kWh for solar thermal energy, this would create the market for private renewable energy generators to come in and provide energy to our already-overstrained grid.” He pointed out that Eskom runs open-cycle gas turbines on diesel for 50% of the time at a cost of more than R2/kWh. “The cost that it takes to run them would make almost all renewable energies competitive.”

Greyling said subsidies need to be dramatically increased to encourage households to install solar water heaters and reach the goal of one million installations in three years.

“A total of R4-billion has already been wasted on the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, with nothing to show for it after 10 years of research. One can only dream about how far ahead we would be if we had invested that money in solar energy research and development,” he said.

There are doubts about whether Van Schalkwyk has the political clout to drive the policy past some of his more heavyweight colleagues, such as Minister of Public Enterprises Alec Erwin and Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica. “What he said was brave and welcome, but I don’t believe the other ministers understand the scale of what Van Schalkwyk is trying to do,” said Morgan.

With its emphasis on diversifying energy sources, carbon taxes and clean technology, the policy is in line with the ANC’s Polokwane resolution on climate change. But the big question is whether Kortbroek will still be in the driving seat next year.

ANC-watchers predict he’ll lose his Cabinet post after next year’s election and that it will be bestowed on a Zuma loyalist. “There are very few ministers assured of keeping their places in Cabinet,” said Morgan. “Trevor Manuel is one of them—Marthinus van Schalkwyk is not.”

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