/ 12 January 2009

‘The world needs Van Schalkwyk’

Kortbroek? Internationally admired? Pull the other one!

The man who shut down the New National Party and jumped ship to the ANC to save his political skin may still provoke contemptuous sniggers around braais in white South Africa.

And with all political debts settled, the ruling party will more than likely ditch Environment Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk after next year’s election.

The irony is that although Kortbroek — a name he detests — is not a prophet at home, he commands widespread respect abroad as head of the South African delegation at one of the most complicated and crucial multilateral treaty negotiations of the 21st century.

Since 1992 the world has been talking about how to save itself from unchecked carbon emissions and the threat posed by global warming.

The December 1997 Kyoto Protocol compelled developed nations to cut their carbon emissions, but two of the biggest culprits, the United States and China, fought shy. A new, comprehensive deal became imperative.

At that stage, South Africa was more spectator than player. Enter Van Schalkwyk, appointed environment minister by Thabo Mbeki, in an act of political back-scratching. It was assumed that this ambitious and ideologically elastic placeman would merely warm a Cabinet seat. But Van Schalkwyk discovered a mission.

Deciding to focus on climate change, he set about building an international profile for South Africa on the issue.

Suddenly, the country became a heavy hitter in climate change politics – particularly as a bridge-builder between North and South in talks aimed at bringing developing nations such as India, China and Brazil on board and inducing them to reduce their carbon footprint. International environmental organisations and politicians were interested in South Africa’s views.

And the South African delegation was not afraid to punch above its weight. In 2007 Van Schalkwyk put the Bush administration on the spot for dragging its heels. At the recent conference in Poznan, Poland, he was similarly tough on Japan, Russia, Canada and Australia for breaking their promises. ”We are very concerned about the widening gap in trust between developed and developing countries and, generally, we are disappointed by the lack of leadership by developed countries,” Van Schalkwyk said. ”This includes [their] inability … to come forward with credible and ambitious mid-term targets for their future mitigation commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.”

His success flows, in part, from the commitments South Africa has made. Under Van Schalkwyk the Cabinet has approved a climate change framework that will see the country stabilise its carbon emissions by 2020 and then gradually reduce them.

The plan, which is thorough but allows for continued economic growth, won praise at Poznan.

So there is concern in international circles that after five years of building South Africa’s profile on climate change, he will almost certainly not be around for the Copenhagen conference at the end of this year.

Copenhagen will be a defining moment – if no deal is clinched, scientists warn that there will be no further chances.
If there is a deal, it will tell all the world’s nations how to power their economies and how much CO2 they can emit. It will push for more renewable energy sources and for written policy commitments. It will try to force a mould-breaking change of direction towards green, sustainable economies.

Experts warn that the world must start cutting its carbon output by 2012. Copenhagen represents the last opportunity, as it will take several years to put concrete plans in place and ratify a deal.

Everyone, including the US, has to be on board this time. Most critics agree that without a significant contribution from South Africa, a comprehensive agreement will be hard to forge.

The world needs South Africa, a WWF delegate told the Mail & Guardian. ”And while we don’t want to focus too much on one individual, the world needs Van Schalkwyk,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, Van Schalkwyk would not comment on his prospects of making it to Denmark. He and his delegation are preparing for Copenhagen as though no election stands in the way.

Many argue that it would be wise to keep him on as environment minister for at least another two years.

But another suggestion by a Poznan delegate is that the new South African president should appoint him as the country’s minister or ambassador for climate change, with the same powers and excellent team at his side.