SA policy sets the example at COP17

South Africa hopes to impress the world with its new national climate response policy — which has been in the making for years — and is set to be unveiled at the upcoming COP17 conference in Durban.

The paper will ask businesses to make a number of sacrifices to get South Africa on to its envisioned low-carbon trajectory, including plotting a carbon budget that will prescribe for the country’s different business sectors just how much carbon they have to “spend”.

Two years ago at the much-hyped climate talks in Copenhagen, President Jacob Zuma said that South Africa would reduce its emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025, if backed by international funding.

It was a groundbreaking and bold announcement that has now been backed by a white paper that would place the country on a sustainable footing.

The paper states that, after 2025, emissions will level out for 10 years, before declining in absolute terms by 2036.

Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa said this week the paper struck a balance between the country’s socioeconomic conditions and the need to prepare for climate change and its effects.

Work on the white paper started six years ago after years of consultation with big business, government departments and civil society.

The paper, endorsed by the Cabinet last week, sets South Africa apart from other developing nations, including China and India, which have not made a similar commitment.

Measure of leverage
Molewa said she believed the paper would give South Africa a measure of leverage at the climate talks at the end of November.

“We are demonstrating as a country that we are serious,” she said. “As high emitters, we are taking action. If we say to the world ‘we need to move’, people won’t say: ‘What about you? Why are you not moving?'”

Peter Lukey, acting deputy director general of the water and environmental affairs department, said that the relevant government departments had contributed to sections of the white paper that concerned them.

“Treasury, for example, was responsible for writing the section on carbon tax,” he said.

One of the most contentious issues in the paper will be the carbon budget, which will be published in two years after consultations with different sectors. Businesses will have to present plans to the government on how they envisage they will reduce their emissions, and the budget will then seek to impose the necessary caps.

“Because we are carbon-intensive doesn’t mean we can continue to be so. Our people are under threat because of our carbon profile,” Lukey said.

He said the policy was not meant to represent a carrot-and-stick approach, but would provide targets and direction for business to work towards.

Lukey said the potential blow of job losses was balanced by the potential for new jobs in a green economy.

“It is impossible to say what the impact of job losses will be,” he told a press briefing in Pretoria this week. “New opportunities will come into play in new sectors such as renewable energy. These green industries are far more labour-intensive.”

The white paper also raised concerns that promises of international funding for the adaptation to climate change might still be too vague.

Negotiations over how the wealthier countries would assist vulnerable countries are likely to be contentious at the climate talks. Pledges have been made but funding has been limited.

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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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