​SA lags behind as countries put forward their climate change plans

There won’t be a COP meeting next year. After two decades of negotiations, the world got its climate agreement at COP21 in Paris last year — the Paris Agreement. This year’s meeting in Marrakech fleshed that out and ensured its nearly 200 signatories were on the same path.

That will see the world moving away from fossil fuels and aiming for zero carbon emissions by 2050. It will also, hopefully, ensure that global warming does not exceed 2°C this century.

Instead of a massive COP meeting, negotiators will meet twice in Germany next year in smaller gatherings to keep on tweaking things. At the heart of this process will be each country’s nationally determined contribution. This is the pledge each country put forward to say how it will lower emissions, and adapt to the changing climate.

South Africa’s contribution covers a whole range of things, such as creating jobs in sustainable development initiatives and shutting down coal-fired power stations. But its core aim is vague — carbon emissions by 2030 could be anywhere between 198-million tonnes and 614-million tonnes.

Climate Action Tracker — a nongovernmental group that crunches the numbers on each country’s contribution — called South Africa’s contribution “inadequate” because it did not match the ambition of keeping global warming below 2°C.

“If most other countries follow South Africa’s approach, global warming would exceed 3°C to 4°C.”

Put together, all the contributions that have been submitted will see the world warm by 2.7°C this century.

These commitments are, however, just a starting point. Most countries have played it safe with their nationally determined contributions. These also only cover the period up until 2030. They are more about getting countries on the same page than ensuring that the world is saved from 2°C warming.

At COP22 in Marrakech, four countries took big steps towards the real goal of keeping warming below that dangerous level.

The United States, Germany, Canada and Mexico published their plans for how their economies would have moved largely away from fossil fuels by 2050. Germany promised a 95% cut and the United States an 80% cut.

The Climate Vulnerable Group of 47 states that face the worst impacts of the changing climate, went one further and promised to run off 100% renewables by the middle of this century.

African countries took the practical path towards a similar goal, giving more details on their Africa Renewable Energy Initiative. This will see 300-gigawatts of renewable capacity built across the continent by 2030. Critically, this will be with funds from private investors, instead of from developed countries giving aid.

That path has stuttered over the years and created a great deal of cynicism among African countries, which stand to lose out from the changing climate. Even the Paris Agreement’s goal of reducing warming to 2°C will result in warming of double that on the continent, which is why the Africa Group at negotiations argued for, and failed to get that goal to be 1.5°C.

Funds to build renewable energy — and adapt to the changing climate — should have come through the Green Climate Fund. In theory, this would have $10-billion a year to disburse to countries that applied for finance. It neatly solved an impasse at previous negotiations, where developing countries refused to sign up to an agreement that prevented them from exploiting fossil fuels and did not see developed countries pay for the climate damage caused by their previous use of fossil fuels.

But the money isn’t there. The US promised to kick things off with a $3-billion commitment. It has handed over $500-million with little more expected to come from that source — president-elect Donald Trump has vowed to cut all funds to United Nations programmes.

By taking control over their own energy future, African countries have an opportunity to do another great technological leapfrog. With the exception of South Africa, most of the continent’s countries have little in the way of power. Renewable energy will allow countries to get that power, while not emitting carbon.

All of this means delegates left Marrakech with a clear view of the path ahead: countries doing their best and working together to lower emissions. The only spanner in that works is Trump, who could reverse all work to reduce emissions in the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

With global levels at 400 parts per million — up from the stable 250 parts per million at the start of the Industrial Revolution — the world is into its sixth successive year of record-breaking heat. This year is set to be the hottest on record — the World Meteorological Organisation says it will be 1.1°C hotter than it would otherwise be if humans weren’t warming the planet. That’s halfway to the 2°C cap set by the Paris Agreement.

But even Trump might be unable to stop the progress coming out of Paris and Marrakech. The nations of the world have largely agreed to do the same thing. That’s historic. 

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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