Khanya journal conference on radical political economy: environment, cop and social justice – December 29, 2011


Ferrial Adam* discusses the SA government’s role in climate change and argues for the need for a mass movement to condidtently safeguard our future environmental interests.

Climate change is one of the worst environmental challenges facing life on earth. The impacts of climate change on ecosystems and livelihoods are being felt now as we witness rising global temperatures, increased occurrence of flooding and droughts, sea-level rises, and seasonal unpredictability across the globe.

The world needs leadership and real action to deal with climate change. South Africa as host of the Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban in December 2011 is grappling with its role as president of the COP17, and as a developing country with high greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa’s position on the challenges of climate change is based on its dual identity. The first identity is that of a developing country with high unemployment and rising poverty. The second identity is that of an emerging industrialised economy trying to punch above its weight in the international economic arena. This duality has influenced its approach to climate change diplomacy.

The National Face

South Africa is the largest emitter of green house gases (ghg) in Africa. Most of these emissions come from the energy sector. It thus makes sense for South Africa to reduce its carbon emissions by phasing out coal as an energy source. At a policy level we have witnessed the emergence of the Long Term Mitigation Scenarios, the Integrated Resource Plan and most recently, the National Climate Change Response White paper. The Long-Term Mitigation Scenarios and other climate change plans do not achieve the kind of emissions reductions that will be required to avoid this country’s population from suffering ecological collapse. In fact, we will probably see an increase in our emissions. Eskom is in the process of building two of the largest coal fired power stations in the world (Medupi and Kusile). These plants will be responsible for increasing SA’s GHG emissions by at least 8% per annum. Furthermore, government has been unable to hold large industries accountable for their historic and future greenhouse gas emissions. There is just too little in the way of adaptation measures for vulnerable communities that are being implemented or even considered. In order for South Africa to effectively reduce its carbon emissions, the country’s ‘development plan’ under a conventional, fossil-fuel energy path must be abandoned. The current energy system needs to be overhauled and geared for energy generation from renewable resources: Not only is a drastic shift in industrial policy possible, it would also provide economic stimulus. Greenpeace Africa’s Advanced Energy [R]evolution has shown that 50% of all electricity in 2050 from clean, renewable resources is possible and would provide up to 150,000 new jobs.

At an International Face

South Africa has been playing a rather interesting and somewhat confusing role at international climate negotiations. It has decided to be a prominent player within the Africa group but at the same time to be one of the more “influential” players under the Basic (brazil, India, SA, China) agenda. As South Africa gets ready to play host and president of the COP17, it needs to make some hard choices and be prepared to take a lead. The global climate negotiations are still reeling from the aftermath of the COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, where the talks ended in a disaster. No progress was made on tackling climate change and the effectiveness of the multilateral system came into question. A year later, Cancun achieved little to combat climate change and was more focused on building trust and commitment at the UNFCCC process. All eyes are on SA to see if they have the courage to stand up to the world and to put people before the polluters.

There are indeed many of the ‘sticky’ issues to be discussed in Durban, including the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, ambitious emissions reductions targets and source of funds for long-term finance. It is no surprise that the expectations and demands for Durban are high, as many are fed up with the slow progress being made at these negotiations and are demanding that there is an adequate response to climate change.

The science hasn´t changed. Much time has been wasted since Copenhagen, hence the urgency is even greater to achieve these objectives. We need to still call for the climate agreement the world urgently needs in order to prevent runaway climate change. Sadly, it is already clear that our governments are not willing to deliver this in Durban. Realistic hope is for the governments to use the opportunity at COP 17 to at least decide on the most crucial building blocks of a global agreement, which can provide the solution to the climate crisis.

Build a mass movement

The danger is imminent, the situation is clear, and people have been demanding action. For South African civil society, this is the beginning of building a broad environmental movement in SA. This stronger environmental justice voice must be harnessed to continue to challenge the government. The best possible outcome from the COP17 for the people of South Africa is a mass movement to ensure that the government and the private sector do what is needed to safeguard our future from catastrophic climate change impacts. People are tired of not being included in the fate of their future and the earth.

Governments should listen to its people, not the polluters. At the COP17 in Durban, governments need to move away from making unclear emission pledges and start making real commitments. If we are to keep global temperature rise to 1.5°C, recommended by scientists and supported by a majority of countries, all governments must increase their ambition now. Greenpeace calls upon governments to stop listening to large corporations that pollute our world, and instead listen to its people.

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