/ 21 February 2022

Presidential Climate Change Commission discusses risks of net-zero carbon emissions for South Africa

Local Companies Doing Little To Lower Carbon Emissions
South Africa is still heading in the wrong direction. We are one of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies and the biggest polluter in Africa.

It is a battle of the minds, views and empirical evidence on South Africa’s road to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and it is happening face-to-face for the first time since inception. 

The Presidential Climate Change Commission convened on Friday at the Industrial Development Corporation Conference Centre in Johannesburg. Topical to the dialogue among policymakers, civil society groups, private sector businesses and academics was the theoretical nature of a net-zero future and the importance of choosing among the models presented to the commission on how to get there. 

Financing a transition to a low carbon future 

On the prickly issue of finance, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan told the hearings that if South Africa wanted to be among the top 10 countries to lead in new green industries then bureaucratic blocks had to be avoided and frankness was needed about the trade-offs.

Gordhan argued that if one looked at which countries contribute to the International Monetary Fund or World Bank and the subsidiary institutions, they include the US and China. But, he asked, are the multilaterals doing enough for a global project that affects the whole of humanity? 

Gordhan said promises were easily made but the pandemic and past experience has proven that there was little to no action.

“Promises are easily made, the delivery takes a hell of a long time, and sometimes not delivered at all. So $100-billion a year was promised almost 10 years ago. As part of the climate process, it was never delivered on that scale at all in the multilateral forums … and then we come to the fiscus of South Africa, which has its own constraints that we are already familiar with and we will become more aware of when the finance minister delivers the budget on Wednesday.” 

He said there is a political economy around climate change and the risks would devalue the country in the eyes of investors. 

“There needs to be a lot more awareness in a lot more quarters in South Africa, that sort of behaviour [increasing South Africa’s risk profile over the transition to net-zero] doesn’t help. The extent to which we’re able to bring that under control is going to be the extent to which we become an attractive centre.”

Development chance of a lifetime

Brian Mantlana, a commissioner and researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, pointed out that net-zero was a climate change concept but was also the biggest development opportunity of our time.

“Firstly, the concept of climate change mitigation is not rocket science. We all know what needs to be done to mitigate climate change. However, effective climate change mitigation translates to very bitter and hard decisions. As such it brings forth both political and economic arguments,” he said.

Commissioner and environmental lawyer at the Centre for Environmental Rights Melissa Fourie said the meetings must not shy away from those “bitter” decisions referred to by Mantlana. She said an example of these decisions was models presented to the commission that required a freeze on all new coal proposals and the lifting of artificial limits on renewable energy in the Integrated Resources Plan, the country’s energy roadmap. 

Fourie said she wanted it noted for the record that the concept of net-zero was a risk. That the world was banking on net-zero. 

“We are taking a massive risk that we are going to invent, develop and roll out technology to capture carbon at scale and in a financially feasible way globally. If we successfully reach net-zero and we are still here great but that does not guarantee a climate resilient future,” she said. 

Chief among the risks in the road to net -zero emissions are the jobs and social effect of the transition if it is poorly managed and the necessary skills and new industries are not developed fast enough to offset the move away from carbon intensive activities, like burning coal to generate power. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa said there are also broader economic risks associated with failing to make the transition to net-zero carbon emissions. 

“As our trading partners pursue the goal of net-zero carbon emissions, they are likely to increase restrictions on the import of goods produced using carbon-intensive energy. Because so much of our industry depends on coal-generated electricity, we are likely to find that the products we export to various countries face trade barriers and, in addition, consumers in those countries may be less willing to buy our products,” he said in an October 2021 statement from the presidency. 

Mantlana echoed Environment Minister Barbara Creecy, who said climate mitigation and its diplomacy, which refers to collective actions needed to stop warming, was characterised by unfairness. He said it was therefore important to raise these issues.  

The unfairness referred to in climate conversations about mitigation include the fact that those least responsible for the crisis are developing countries, which do not have the financial means or capacity to rapidly act against global warming — yet they are expected to do so in the absence of international support.

Scientists concluded in 2013 that greenhouse gas emissions must reach net-zero to stop global warming. This was followed by the 2015 Paris Agreement that commits country signatories to balancing emissions and removals by mid-century. 

Another scientific assessment, popularly known as the 1.5 degree celsius report, in 2018 confirmed that emissions had to reach net-zero by 2050 to avoid that level of warming.

By 2019, 16% of the global economy was committed to the mid-century goal. This rose to 68% in 2021. 

Among the reactions to the commissioners comments was an environmentalist who told the meeting that nature was the “technology” needed to mitigate climate change and that it needed more investment.

But Mantlana said he would not comment on that suggestion because he did not believe nature could mitigate as rapidly as required or at the scale required. 

Social justice and climate action must marry 

A “just” energy transition, commission deputy chair Vallie Moosa said is among the themes being prioritised at the commission’s hearings, and it is centred on the social consequences of decarbonising economies. 

Ramaphosa, who chairs the commission, wants public awareness on climate change to be central to the mandate of the Presidential Climate Change Commission. 

Moosa told the meeting that it was necessary to avoid making decisions without broad public support. He said the commission was set up to play an important role in public awareness and create broad consensus. 

“In a sense the commission was not on the side of anything and the commission is not ideologically loaded, and he [Ramaphosa] thought there is insufficient public awareness in society about climate change, the dangers of climate change, why we need to do something and what can be done etc,” he said. 

The draft just transition framework set April 2021 to April 2022 for public consultations. Bongani Mwale, who is a commissioner and an activist in Mpumalanga, said public participation was one of the most important discussions that must take place and warned that consultations were already late. 

“At the centre of whatever we do must be people. It should be driven by the people and for the people  otherwise we run the risk of having resistance. When there is going to be resistance because of fear of the unknown and fear of change.”

Other speakers called on the commission to ensure the public process was not a “tick- the-box” exercise. 

Tunicia Phillips a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.