/ 5 July 2024

The climate change bill must be signed into law as a matter of urgency

Drought damage: Droughts in the past two years have made the poor even more vulnerable because food prices rise and they cannot depend on their own crops for sustenance.
(Paul Botes/M&G)

In April this year, the National Council of Provinces passed the country’s first climate change bill, following the passing of the bill by the National Assembly in October. 

The swift movement of the bill through these formal political settings generated hope in the local climate community, that the president would sign the bill into law before the May elections. That date came and went, and the bill has still to be signed, even though other important laws relating to health, gender-based violence, and the National Prosecuting Authority have recently received the president’s signature. 

South Africa is both highly vulnerable to climate change and is also a significant emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. Climate legislation is increasingly recognised as a critical component of a country’s climate change response, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) identifying it as an important enabler of intergovernmental coordination, policy formulation and implementation.

Virtually all countries that are major emitters of greenhouse gases now have laws in place to control emissions, conserve energy, avoid deforestation or promote cleaner forms of energy production. Many African countries have also outpaced us. For example, Kenya, Benin, Nigeria, Uganda and Mauritius have all enacted comprehensive climate change laws. Six years have passed since the bill was first released for public comment and its enactment has now become urgent. 

Climate risks, climate effects and opportunities because of climate change bring peculiar governance challenges that demand an engaged and effective state and a response across all departments. Through the institutional and reporting structures it creates, the bill will foster coordinated climate governance across relevant departments and among ministers, a critical function given the recent change in the cabinet.  

The climate change bill also shifts the location of climate governance beyond the environmental sector by mainstreaming climate considerations across the chain of government. It does this in a manner that recognises the highly uneven structure of South Africa’s economy and the complex politics of long-standing interests that bind the dominant fossil fuel production systems.

It will give the country the tools it needs to ensure its myriad policies remain aligned and climate-relevant. Amongst these is the amendment of the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) which aims to provide a roadmap for meeting South Africa’s forecasted electricity demand, while remaining consistent with South Africa’s emission target. In so doing the bill positions itself as an institutional strategy setter that codifies the future direction of national climate policy.

The bill’s enactment is critical for several reasons. The first is to maintain the upswing in political will to respond to climate change. It is a necessary driver of the effective functioning of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), which was established in December 2020. The PCC includes cabinet ministers and is chaired by the president.

The bill will also support the functioning of provincial level climate governance structures that are led at the level of the premier. South Africa also needs the bill to ground domestic policy and respond to the rise of market-based instruments that affect the South African carbon-intensive industry and exports.

For example, the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which comes into full operation in 2026, is anticipated to stunt domestic growth by 9.3% by 2050 and cut exports by 10%. It has been criticised by the South African government as a foreign instrument that dictates domestic policy. 

We also need a legal instrument to foster adaptation and reduce loss and damage associated with extreme weather events that are now becoming a “new normal” for some parts of the country. Moreover, we are seeing a surge in environmental-related litigation, that is driving policy formulation in the absence of specific legislation. A bill can comprehensively set policy without it being addressed piecemeal by the courts. 

The climate community in South Africa holds diverse views on the existing and future national mitigation targets. We expect to see these discussions dominating the climate policy discussions in the next few months as the country prepares and finalises its next nationally determined contribution. As a norm, the climate change bill does not explicitly address this issue. 

But contrary to what would be expected, in South Africa, political orientation is not a decisive factor in these discussions. While the country’s political economy factors matter, national climate response raises minimal political contestations as it remained inconspicuous in the election manifestos for the recent national elections. 

Global climate multilateralism has become hostile, as it is characterised by an unvarnished rejection by the EU, the United States and other developed countries of the responsibility for causing climate change as they prioritise their national interests. In such a context, it is critical for South Africa to chart its own climate policy and create local mechanisms and governance structures for implementation. 

The bill is a foundational tool for national self-organisation towards an enhanced and coherent national climate action. The state remains front and centre in leading national climate change action. For these reasons, the bill must be signed into law as a matter of urgency. 

Dr Brian Mantlana is an impact area manager in the Holistic Climate Change, Smart Places Cluster at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Olivia Rumble is a director of Climate Legal.