The year 2021 should be remembered as a turning point for climate change policy and diplomacy in South Africa. It is hard to recall a time when so many players felt that the game had been lifted and some optimism infused.
It is a struggle to garner the energy for optimism, given the entrepreneurial zeal with which corruption remains rampant at all levels of our society. There is a sense of decline about many facets of South African life and the economy. Key social goods need fixing: rail infrastructure is on the brink of existential collapse, load-shedding is frequent, and the majority of South Africans have to contend with a lack of decent and basic municipal services.
There have been changes on two fronts, however: the first has entailed bringing about greater coherence to domestic climate policy and starting to treat it as a ‘whole government’ issue, while the second has seen South Africa deploying globally pioneering approaches to using climate finance options to support its own energy transition.
During a Parliamentary debate late last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa demonstrated his grasp of the issues and why climate diplomacy – exemplified by the Just Energy Transition Transaction (JETT) – has reached such a high bar and has been of strategic importance, with ramifications across the globe. One of the most talked-about issues globally these days is not South Africa’s messy national politics, but the JETT.
The key message of Ramaphosa’s disposition, which can often be missed by people who do not see the promise, is not to look back but to think about how we can use climate policy and diplomacy to shape the future.
A key to revitalising climate policy and achieve some semblance of coherence was the establishment, early last year, of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), which is led by seasoned personalities such as the commission’s deputy chairperson, former Environment Minister Valli Moosa, and the former director-general of the Department of the Environment, Dr Crispian Olver.
The PCC is an outcome of the Jobs Summit, which was hosted by Ramaphosa in 2018. It was recognised that South Africa could not escape the fact that it is too dependent on coal and that this dependence had to be broken. The old cannot be summarily shed without consequences for South Africa, which was one of the first countries to incorporate the ‘just transition’ notion in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC); it had to find ways to give meaning to the idea as a managed transition is executed – coal plants will have to be decommissioned in any case, given that most of the plants are already past their sell-by date. New plants are not what they should be; new supercritical plants are performing worse than old plants – they are endlessly dogged by boiler tube breakdowns and other engineering mishaps.
The PCC’s mandate is to work with key stakeholders to get them to work towards sufficient consensus on how the just transition should be brought about in key sectors that have to embark on the journey of decarbonisation, with the electricity sector being prioritised. The PCC is also joining the dots between what is often regarded as a narrow environmental issue and the real economy – which is perhaps the most profound shift in how climate policy in South Africa is starting to evolve.
Thanks to Zoom, the PCC has opened its dialogues to the public in terms of viewing and participation. This is unlike in the past, when climate policy tended to be thickly crusted with bureaucracy-speak and far removed from real-life issues.
This open-door policy of the PCC has given the public a better understanding of the thinking of government and other stakeholders about climate change and of the challenges facing South Africa’s energy transition.
The PCC’s ability to gather diverse views and expert knowledge was demonstrated in no better way than in the way in which it engaged the NDC process and targets.
The commission has created an environment in which evidence-based work leads to policymaking, with different expert views not taken as a given, as they are subjected to public scrutiny and debate. Any one group’s opinion has to stand up to peer review and public ‘inquisition’ – in this way, hard questions can be asked on open public platforms about the assumptions, evidence and conclusions of stated opinions.
This is a far cry from how a lot of climate policy work often happens. Behind closed doors, those who have money and the ability to in-source expert evidence get to sit in the front row and to tell decision-makers how the world works. They often use science and evidence to push their own line and not the national interest. The PCC has been really good at changing that and this is one of the positive attributes of the PCC, even though it is only an advisory body.
The early work of the PCC focused on strengthening the NDC ambition. The revised NDC targets were also key to aligning the JETT with the new emissions reduction trajectory, which has shifted, given that South Africa’s overall emissions have declined, from an anticipated ‘peak, plateau and decline’ trajectory to substantially deeper cuts. The current NDC targets have two emission decline trajectories without the need for a plateau – ranging from an upper band and a lower band, the upper band being aligned to less than a 2 ºC target and the lower band to a 1.5 ºC Paris Agreement-aligned target.
The PCC has effectively become a vibrant policy think-tank for not only the South African climate community but also an international audience that is eager to engage South Africa’s energy transition. The PCC is already a member of an international network of climate commissions and is the only African member at present. It is also uniquely focused on climate change and a just transition, which makes its work more relevant for other developing and emerging economies should they join this global network of climate commissions.