SA to demand fairness at COP19

Alf Wills, deputy director-general at the department of environmental affairs. (Johann Barnard)

Alf Wills, deputy director-general at the department of environmental affairs. (Johann Barnard)

South African negotiators view the Climate Change Conference (otherwise known as the Conference of the Parties — COP) in Warsaw, Poland next week as a watershed event that will, to a great extent, determine the parameters of the global response to climate change beyond 2020.

This, among other topics, was the subject of discussion on Tuesday this week when the department of environmental affairs (DEA) hosted a climate change breakfast briefing outside Pretoria.

The event was also used to unveil the department’s Long-Term Adaptation Scenarios that spell out the threats and proposed interventions to minimise the risk to the country from rising global temperatures.

“South Africa’s approach in these negotiations is twofold. First, to seek progress with the implementation of decisions already taken under the convention and the Kyoto Protocol and, second, to ensure that there are significant advances in the work under the Durban Platform, so that negotiations on a new global agreement on climate change can be concluded by 2015,” said Maesela Kekana, the department’s lead climate change negotiator.

“Progress is expected on both the implementation of the Bali Outcomes and the Durban Platform. As we approach COP19, South Africa will be taking a long-term strategic approach.”

Kekana added that, on the back of the gains made in previous conferences in Durban and Qatar, it was critical for actionable plans to emerge from COP19 and COP20 in Lima.

“To ensure effective implementation of decisions already taken, it is important that COP19 provides clarity on how the adaptation committee, the technology executive committee, the climate technology centre and network and the financial mechanism will function in a coherent manner,” he said.

Judging by the input from Sandra de Wet, chief state law adviser (international law) from the department of international relations and co-operation and leader of the negotiators on the ad hoc working group on the Durban platform for enhanced action (ADP), the Warsaw COP will face significant challenges.

“More than ever, these negotiations under the ADP will be a high stake interest-driven process for all countries,” she said.

“I think South Africa has always been a very reliable player, but in this negotiation on and agreement beyond 2020 we have to be awake. We have to know what will be asked of us as a country and what it is we can actually deliver.

“Most importantly, we need to determine what it would mean for South Africa if there is no support from the developed countries that already have an international obligation to provide the means of implementation in the form of financial support, technology transfer and development and capacity building to developing countries.

“South Africa needs to honestly reflect on the question whether it can take on legally binding obligations without such support. Developed countries are very keen to include all the big-emitting countries into the new scheme without providing the necessary support. The reality is that some of the big emitting countries, like South Africa, cannot be treated the same way as, for example, China or Mexico. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities must be adhered to. South Africa must demand fairness from the negotiations.”

She added that including adaptation and mitigation strategies was a key priority for South Africa, one which the country’s negotiation team would push to have included in the new legal agreement.

Adaptation, rather than mitigation, is a key sticking point among climate scientists. Adaptation provides a path to limiting a country’s vulnerability whereas mitigation aims to reduce the magnitude of the threat from climate change.

South Africa sits firmly in the adaptation school of thought. To this end, the DEA has developed national and sub-national adaptation scenarios that will be used to inform key decisions in future development and planning to build climate resilience.

The first phase was completed in June to create a consensus view of climate change trends, projections and vulnerabilities, focusing on water, agriculture and forestry, human health, marine fisheries, and biodiversity.

The second phase will use an integrated assessment approach and model to develop adaptation scenarios for future climate conditions using the information, data and models from the first phase, and will seek to get input from a range of stakeholders.

The results of the first phase have been compiled into a comprehensive information pack that was launched at the DEA’s briefing this week.

The importance of this work and need for a co-ordinated effort around these adaptation strategies was highlighted by South African Local Government Association environment and climate change specialist Telly Chauke.

“All those vulnerabilities converge in a local government level. We are vulnerable as institutions in terms of how we function sustainably and continue to exist as independent parts of our government systems,” she said.

She added that local municipalities suffer the same challenges seen on a global scale where countries are unable to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Climate change responses have to be very sensitive to those kinds of dynamics,” she said.

“We advise our municipalities to start thinking of a ground-up approach. Our advice on how we approach climate change and vulnerabilities has been to say: know your problem. Our problems are not similar across all our 278 municipalities.

“The most important work we do in the background is shaping and influencing the legislative and fiscal frameworks. For us as municipalities, the challenge is huge and it is a drum we beat a lot: we talk about capacity and lack of financial means to deliver, but these are essential things we need to consider.”

The publication of the long-term adaptation scenarios, she said, was seen as a critical tool to help municipalities wade through the complexities of the threats and possible strategies to reduce these vulnerabilities.

“There are huge divisions at local government level. There are people who are proponents of mitigation, some are vying for adaptation and some sit in the middle. So how do we start influencing the meeting of minds?

“This process is therefore a god-send to us because even if it is at a high level it is beginning to provide the broad brushstrokes that we can then start building partnerships to see what actions we can take to localise this information and influence the planning cycle.”

Testimonials such as this would certainly help the department feel that the months of work it has invested in producing the long-term adaptation scenarios have been worthwhile.

This is, however, but the start of a long journey that is still going to require many more hours of work and consultation. Any strategy or scenario planning is only as strong as the buy-in from the people it is aimed at.

Deputy director-general Judy Beaumont acknowledged that more work is needed to raise public awareness on climate change impacts and response options and believed that the release of the scenario documents would go some way to reinvigorating debate and awareness of the threats the country faces unless urgent action is taken.

This article forms part of a supplement paid for by the GIZ, department of environmental affairs and partners. Contents and photographs were supplied and signed off by the dpartment