Andreas Späth

SA's climate change plan

2011-10-26 07:14

Andreas Späth

Approved by Cabinet and released in time for COP17 (next month’s international climate change conference in Durban), the government believes that its National Climate Change Response White Paper will "give us some moral high ground" and "quite a whole lot of leverage". But what does this important policy document actually say?

I'm usually very critical of our government's commitment to solving environmental problems, but there are some very positive aspects to the white paper. For starters, it unambiguously defines the administration’s understanding of global warming by acknowledging that:

• climate change is already a measurable reality;

• climate change is primarily due to an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere as a result of human activities;

• climate change is a major threat to the continent and our country;

• South Africa, with its energy-intensive economy powered by fossil fuels, is "a relatively significant contributor to global climate change"; and that

• climate change can only be halted by international cooperation.

It then goes on to spell out SA's vision of a transition to a "climate-resilient and lower-carbon economy and society" which is to be achieved by a combination of adaptation and mitigation.

Adaptation refers to actions that will help the country cope with the inevitable impacts of climate change. Mitigation points to ways in which we can reduce our GHG emissions in order to limit the rise in average global temperature to a maximum of 2oC above pre-industrial levels.

The areas of the economy and society that need immediate attention through adaptation measures are identified as water, agriculture and forestry, human health and settlements, biodiversity and disaster risk management. The types of things that will promote adaptation to the more severe weather conditions likely to become a reality as a result of climate change include “water-sensitive urban design”, “climate-smart agriculture”, combating alien and invasive plant species and exploring under-used water resources such as groundwater and desalination.

South Africa's proposed mitigation measures are based chiefly on a home-grown study of so-called long-term mitigation scenarios, adopted by cabinet as early as 2008. This study focuses predominantly on reducing national GHG emissions due to electricity generation, the use of liquid fossil fuels and the mining, industrial and transportation sectors. By cutting our GHG output by 34% below "business-as-usual" projections by 2020 and by 42% by 2025, national emissions would peak between 2020 and 2025, achieve a decade-long plateau and then start to drop in absolute terms.

The most promising mitigation options in the short term are identified as, among others, improved energy efficiency, increased investment in renewable energy alternatives, afforestation, lower-carbon public transport and carbon capture and storage technologies.

Within two years, carbon budgets detailing desired reductions of emissions from high-emission economic sectors and companies will be established, and these sectors and companies will then have to provide plans on how they will cut back their GHG outputs in line with their carbon budget. A number of economic instruments, including carbon taxes, incentives and emission trading schemes will also be explored.

While the white paper thus contains a number of positives, several concerns about SA’s climate change policy remain:

• The government’s commitments to act on global warming are premised on reciprocal actions as well as technical and financial support from developed countries, implying that as long as they delay decisive action, so will we.

• As Dr Ian Perrin of points out, the emissions reduction target on which the white paper is based, may not be good enough. In a recent paper, NASA’s premier climate scientist, Dr James Hansen, argues that "the goals to limit human-made warming to 2oC [above pre-industrial levels] are not sufficient – they are prescriptions for disaster".

• While the white paper may be full of good intentions, what government is actually busy doing is quite a different matter. It seems to me that if they were truly committed to a greener economy and society, they would not be considering a trillion rand nuclear energy programme, with all its environmental, human health and financial risks, and they would certainly not be building more giant coal-fired electricity plants like Kusile in Mpumalanga and Medupi in Limpopo.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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