Legislation will compel the government to act on climate change but there are still several concerns
Civil society groups say that the passing of the climate change bill will allow South Africa to get to the real action of moving away from fossil fuels.
Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute executive director Francesca de Gasparis told the Mail & Guardian that the bill is a “huge moment” for the country, with far-reaching consequences, and with actions that the provincial and national governments should take.
“For civil society, and most South Africans who have already experienced the impacts of climate change, this bill is overdue and its enactment cannot happen soon enough. Finally, with this bill we will have legislation that means it will be compulsory for the government to take real action on climate change,” she said.
The bill is the first piece of legislation in South Africa specifically aimed at addressing the effects of climate change.
It was introduced in Parliament in February last year and is aimed at ensuring the development of a co-ordinated, integrated and effective nationwide response to climate change and the management of its impact.
The bill has the potential to limit the carbon emissions of industrial powerhouses, such as Eskom and Sasol, because it affords broad powers to the minister in charge of the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment to write regulations determining limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
The National Assembly adopted the bill on Tuesday. It will now be sent to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) for review after which it will go back to the National Assembly for approval to be signed into law.
The bill was adopted by the National Assembly after more than 13 000 public comments were received, before it was looked over again by the parliamentary legal team.
The Green Connection’s Strategic Lead Liziwe McDaid said the organisation looks forward to the approval by the NCOP, “so we can get to the real action of moving away from fossil fuels and building a resilient society that is equipped to effectively address the climate crisis”.
On Tuesday, the forestry, fisheries and environment minister Barbara Creecy said in parliament that the bill was a crucial first step to ensuring the country had a legal instrument to build capacity to respond to the impact of climate change and reduce emissions in a way that was appropriate to national circumstances.
“As our country develops our vision of a just transition to a low-carbon economy and climate resilient society, we will ensure it’s sustainable, inclusive, comprehensive and leaves no one behind,” she said.
Creecy referred to the findings of the Sixth Report of the International Panel on Climate Change, which indicated that the globe is nearing a 1.5°C increase in temperature since pre-industrial times.
The Paris Agreement — a legally binding document, which aims to limit global warming to below 2°C and push to limit it to 1.5°C — aims to strengthen countries’ ability to deal with climate change. There are predictions of major suffering and loss of life if the world warms to higher than 1.5°C.
Creecy added that under the bill, the Presidential Climate Commission will be formally established as a statutory body to mobilise all sectors to present a societal response to climate change.
The commission was appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2020 to advise him on mitigation of the impact of climate change and reduction of emissions, among other things.
The bill comes after an analysis by the research consortium World Weather Attribution found that climate change had led to the extreme rainfall that caused the catastrophic floods and landslides in KwaZulu–Natal and the Eastern Cape in April last year.
Earthlife Africa’s Johannesburg programme officer Ulrich Steenkamp said the organisation was happy about the formalisation of the Presidential Climate Change Commission, which “we assume will have powers to monitor and, where possible, not just recommend but follow through to hold institutions responsible for environmental and climate protection accountable”.
Steenkamp added that there is a need for financial backing to ensure that the bill is successful when signed into law by Ramaphosa. “Therefore, if there is no financial backing to support this new legislation, then all the good intentions of the act that is meant to address climate change will only remain on paper.”
Steenkamp’s concerns come after public questions about how the government will fund its response to climate change.
The concerns were backed by the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) representative on the portfolio committee for forestry, fisheries and the environment, Hannah Winkler, who said the implementation of the act does not make sufficient provision for municipalities to receive the resources they would need for such implementation.
During responses at a portfolio committee meeting in August, Creecy agreed to add a clause that allows funding to be given to municipalities to help them deal with climate change.
“It has been the DA’s position that many of the goals of the climate change bill, including obligations for municipalities, will be rendered meaningless if there is not a clear path towards ensuring that the requisite finances are provided.”
“For any significant legislative measures, especially those as critical as the climate change bill, to be effectively implemented, they must be paired with a well-structured and robust financing mechanism,” Winkler said during the meeting.
Melissa Fourie, the executive director at the Centre for Environmental Rights, a non-profit shareholder activism organisation, also raised several key problems. She believes the bill lacks adequate compliance and enforcement provisions.
“There are a number of other critical provisions, such as setting carbon budgets and sectoral emissions targets, that have no deadlines attached to them, leading to concerns that meaningful action may be further delayed,” she said.
“The climate crisis is upon us, but the bill does not yet reflect the urgency or severity of the situation. There needs to be meaningful deterrence for non-compliance and excessive greenhouse gas emissions so that big emitters will take the necessary action,” she said.
Climate Advocacy lawyer Brandon Abdinor said South African cannot afford to wait any longer for the bill to be passed as the country is already feeling the impact of climate change and there was a need for legal certainty on a response.
“Climate adaptation needs to become central in all tiers of government and strategic planning without any further delay. In addition, the bill places a great deal of responsibility on municipalities and provincial government to assess climate change needs and create climate response implementation plans to cover both adaptation and mitigation measures,” Abdinor said.