Sonjica’s tough talk

Flanked by South Africa’s two leading climate change negotiators, Buyelwa Sonjica, South Afric’s environmental affairs minister, seemed a determined woman at OR Tambo airport this week.

She was jetting out for ‘Climate Week” in Washington, where she will first attend a ministerial-level gathering of the world’s 17 largest carbon polluters before going to a two-day climate summit next Tuesday convened by United Nations’ secretary general Ban Ki-Moon.

The trip will end with a two-day G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The minister, along with negotiators Alf Wills and Joanne Yawitch, said South Africa would be pushing hard for an inclusive climate deal in the months ahead. They said the country was ready to meet its commitments, but the developed world needed to join the party.

Sonjica emphasised that South Africa would need financial help to cope with the effects of global warming: ‘We, the developing world, expect money — as of yesterday. That is what I will be pushing [for] on my trip.”

South Africa needs technology transfers to build a low-carbon future, financial aid to help it adapt to climate change and investment in skills and renewable energy. South Africa hopes to secure 1% of global GDP, or about $400- billion, by 2020 for developing countries.

At least 25% of this has to be assigned to help countries adapt to climate change. ‘We are doing what is in line with what is on the table for every developing country, and will not compromise,” Sonjica insisted.

‘Climate Week” is seen as an important prelude to climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December, which will seek a comprehensive agreement to counter global warming.

The treaty will force countries to reduce their emissions and help poor states, most of which are threatened by drought, floods and rising sea levels. Reducing emissions carries a price tag, which is why some countries, including the United States, are reluctant to commit themselves.

Other laggards include Canada, Japan and Russia. Science requires the world to curb emissions by at least 25% and preferably closer to 40%. Developing countries such as South Africa, China, India and Brazil want the developed world to aim for 40% by 2020. Current pledges amount to about 13%, Yawitch said. ‘There is very little on the table. There will be no easy outcome.”

Other negotiating teams around the world are starting to speak about Copenhagen Plus, with talks possibly continuing into next year. Yawitch said South Africa was still optimistic that a deal could be reached in Copenhagen. ‘We are heading for an intense round of negotiations in the coming months that equal about two years’ worth of negotiations,” she said. “A lot can be done.”

Although South Africa will not commit to targets in Copenhagen, its long-term strategy sees local emissions peaking between 2020 and 2025, stabilising by 2035 and declining absolutely by 2050.

Cabinet is to discuss a draft climate-change policy at the end of September, which is likely to incorporate a ballpark figure for emissions reduction in future.

Sonjica, who replaced Marthinus van Schalkwyk as environmental affairs minister, a climate activist, came with baggage. As former minister for energy, she did little to push for the use of renewable energy sources or to reduce South Africa’s dependency on coal.

Richard Worthington, climate change programme manager for WWF South Africa, said there was anxiety about her role because of the emphasis on adaptation in her statements. She also appeared to be shying away from the issue of mitigation.

But her statements this week reinforced hopes that, in Copenhagen, South Africa will maintain its high profile as a bridge between north and south. Sonjica was blunt about what she expected from the US. ‘We need bold commitments,” she said. ‘I don’t see that coming from them right now.”

She played down a statement by Cabinet spokesperson Themba Maseko last week that South Africa would not commit to emissions targets. ‘Ask the experts rather,” she said, implying that Maseko was not one.

Worthington said it was a great pity that Maseko seemed to care little for perceptions or negotiating strategy, ‘leaving South Africa sounding like a petulant child that is ignorant of its own resources, opportunities and standing commitments”.

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Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

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