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COP 21 and South Africa’s position

9th October 2015

By: Saliem Fakir

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South Africa is fourteenth out of the 20 or so worst emitters of greenhouse gases. Today or historically, we account for between 1% and 2% of global emissions. Even though this may be considered small, South Africa’s position as a developing but emerging economy means our leadership and moral role have a significant influence on the global stage.
South Africa was one of the first developing countries to pledge emission reductions – despite not being obliged to do so – when, in 2010, it set emissions reduction targets of 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025 below an unspecified ‘business as usual’, or BAU, trajectory (subject to financial and other support from developed countries).
But things have changed. South Africa’s Intended National Determined Contributions (INDCs) take us a step away from this original ambitious goal.
A global carbon budget needs to be shared equitably by the major polluters (developed industrial economies) and developing countries. That is the idea. But that is not how the real world works. There is a shift in politics that is influencing the outcomes of international negotiations.
This shift is also redefining the traditional view of common but differentiated responsibility, a cardinal principle of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which holds that a larger share of the burden should be borne by early industrial and developed States.
The idea of ‘equitable share’ is being watered down, and the US-China agreement on climate change simply reinforces this idea. The major consequence of the deal is that the two largest economies will, with time, come to dictate the terms of engagement for everybody else because they hold dominant economic power and influence trade relations.
In reality, the UNFCCC process, most astute observers now conclude, is weakened by the stalling tactics of the big emitters. There are several reasons for this.
We have failed to extend the Kyoto Protocol, which means that, until a new deal is in place, nothing binds the major emitters to anything other than promises and pledges. Between now and 2020, emissions will continue to grow, although the International Energy Agency argues total emissions growth will be ‘flat’, owing to a global economic slowdown.
The Green Climate Fund has been established, with a board and an institutional apparatus, but it has only about $10-billion in its coffers, far less than the $100-billion that will be required each year to dramatically scale up actions to reduce global greenhouse gases. All this must be seen against the economic and geopolitical landscape of a fractured global economy, tense geopolitical relations and the persistent ‘fire of a bubbling and ebbing financial crisis’.
In preparing for the next Congress of the Parties, to be held in Paris, in December, countries have agreed to publicly outline what post-2020 climate actions they intend to take under a new international agreement, known as their INDCs. These are the steps governments are willing to take to address climate change in their own countries. INDCs will reflect each country’s level of effort in reducing emissions, taking into account domestic circumstances and capabilities.
The effect of an already weakened international process and less-ambitious- than-expected INDCs from other pledging countries is also playing itself out in the way South African is going forward with regard to its pledge after Copenhagen, announced with great fanfare and for which we got a lot of kudos in 2010. On the national front, we have enshrined a Peak, Plateau and Decline (PPD) in national policy – effectively our own undeclared carbon budget. The review of the South African INDC submission shows that the mitigation challenge has been pushed later rather than being brought forward.
The original start date for PPD was in 2010 at a lower emissions BAU baseline than real emissions turned out to be. The INDC submission shifts the start date from 2010 to 2016 – giving South Africa licence to not account for the emissions over the period 2010 to 2016. Unless corrected for the period from 2016, this means we are on our way to overshooting the carbon budget we allowed ourselves in our National Climate Change Response White Paper.
If we are to align the INDC with national policy, it implies that we have to work harder and faster to get these emissions down. But the INDC submission avoids this important question. It does not quantify our emissions reductions in absolute terms or specify a carbon budget we commit to in order to remain within the PPD. This is left vague. The new start date suggests we have already given in to pressure from special interests like big business and emitters. By being vague, we further play into their hands, as this creates a gap for ongoing contestation of what our domestic actions and targets should be.
For those of us who follow national discussions closely, it is clear that the issues influencing the position of an already weak Department of Environmental Affairs include the current slow growth and recession, and big business is using the argument that, if we go ahead with a bigger ambition, it will kill industry and jobs. This is an ‘convenient’ excuse that is currently shaping the meagre INDC position. Nationally, there is no conversation about how we will manage the PPD from the point of view of an overall limited carbon budget between now and 2050.
The South African delegation to the UNFCCC will be negotiating an international agreement that is contested and at risk with a substantively weaker domestic ambition. This also weakens our moral standing and leadership position in climate negotiations. If we do not make a clear commitment, others will take our cue and not table INDCs with greater ambition. This is the slippery slope we face. Big emitters have all along argued that “we won’t if you won’t”. Do we want to keep giving them that excuse? We should rather table ambitious and firm commitments, and spell out what support we need from developed countries to achieve that.

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