Comment by Richard Worthington – SA should not shirk responsibility to lead by example

SA should not shirk responsibility to lead by example

10 September 2015

South Africa apparently has nothing to add to the commitment it took to climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, at least judging from the discussion document quietly released by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on 6 August. The document, to be discussed at a series of provincial consultations ending in the Western Cape on 31 August, concerns our Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), a formal proposition that countries have agreed to submit to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat by 1 October, describing our contributions to global climate change response as input to the new agreement due to be secured at this year’s negotiations in Paris – COP21.
South Africa will again play a conspicuous and potentially pivotal role at COP21, where climate negotiations are due to fulfil the programme of work adopted at COP17 in Durban, as Chair of the most inclusive developing country negotiating group: ‘the G77 & China’. While this work includes raising short-term ambition, most attention is focused on the promised agreement on post-2020 climate change response and particularly the mitigation (emissions reduction) component of this, though SA and many developing countries rightly insist that adaptation to the impacts of global warming gains equal attention.
South Africa has positioned itself as a champion of the equity principle, requiring that the Parties most responsible for the increase atmospheric greenhouse gasses take the lead in climate change response, including providing support to developing countries for both mitigation and adaptation. This requires leadership, both in interpretation of the Convention’s provisions on “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capability” and in presenting mitigation intentions clearly consistent with a desirable global outcome. A target of 40% of electricity generation from renewable resources by 2030 is a nationally appropriate objective that would make a decisive contribution to global mitigation and local socio-economic development.
Unfortunately the ‘Discussion Document: South Africa’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution’ suggests that SA will not be setting any positive example. It ignores a major consequence of the equity position it espouses and it avoids quantifying any contribution to mitigation – where the INDC format provides for a “Reference point” it offers 2016! If not rectified, such blatant evasiveness will undermine South Africa’s credibility as a negotiating nation and any claim to moral authority or legitimate leadership amongst developing countries.
This is cause for concern not only for those advocating effective climate change response, but also for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO); the Minister, who served as President of COP17 in 2011, should ensure that our negotiating position, including on mitigation, reflects the interests of the majority of South Africans and our region, rather than vested interests amongst the status quo. Hopefully the document does not yet reflect the best national intentions that may emerge from the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Climate Change (IMCCC).
The document’s treatment of mitigation deals exclusively with what SA would consider as an equitable national allocation of acceptable global emissions, or a fair share of the mitigation required, to achieve the agreed goal of keeping global warming below 2°C. This ignores the key consequence of the equity principle: the most developed countries should achieve more mitigation than is possible domestically, by also providing for mitigation elsewhere, thus the actual emissions of high-emitting developing countries like SA must be significantly lower than would result if only their national fair share of mitigation is undertaken. An INDC that is not demonstrably aligned with an acceptable global outcome should put SA to shame.
The only quantification of intended mitigation provided is an aspiration for emissions in 2050 to be between 212 and 428 Mt CO2-eq, which suggests that South Africa has not sincerely embraced the global goal, much less the Africa Group position that seeks to keep warming below 1.5°C. The top of this range involves South Africa laying claim to six times what the global average per capita emissions in 2050 should be to afford half a chance of stabilisation at 1.5°C warming, while the bottom demands at least three times such a global per capita average (i.e. 1 tonne CO2-eq per person per annum).
To present “42% deviation below…” an unspecified “business as usual emissions growth trajectory” for 2025 as a ‘firm’ commitment doesn’t help. Worse is the demonstrably false statement that “The INDC reflects SA’s full mitigation potential”, which is inconsistent with government’s own research. Most egregiously, the document cites a claim that South Africa has a right, “consistent with core Convention principles”, to emit “20 – 22 Gt CO2-eq for the period 2016 – 2050”. Such a carbon budget proposal for South Africa, attributed only to “Analysis by SA experts”, far exceeds what published assessments of responsibility and capability allocate to SA as a fair share and is at least twice as much as South Africa could justify for the period, at least amongst African colleagues.
[ Recent World Bank statistics suggest that South Africa has overtaken Mexico to become the world’s 11th largest annual emitter of carbon dioxide (the GHG responsible for about two-thirds of global warming), despite delays in starting up the huge new coal-fired power stations (Medupi and Kusile) that are due to add about 10% to our current emissions. The 2015 Energy Productivity and Economic Prosperity Index, which assesses Gross Domestic Product per unit of energy used, ranked South Africa at 116 out of 131 countries listed and 48th out of the world’s 50 largest economies – less productive (more energy-intensive) than both China and Russia. ]
Understandably a negotiation position will leave room for manoeuvre, but it requires some substance consistent with the global goal. SA’s INDC should explicitly recognise that implementing an equitable national contribution to global mitigation would leave SA’s emissions higher than will be required, since wealthy developed countries are responsible for mitigation beyond becoming domestically carbon neutral within two decades, and South Africa has no basis to exempt itself from accommodating a share of this required effort. Indeed if we want to receive support, we should have a plan for what it could deliver -for South Africa’s emissions to be commensurate with retaining some chance of stabilisation at 1.5°C would involve some 2 to 6 Gt of mitigation additional to an equitable domestic contribution by 2050.)
There is no need for “Our aspiration in the long term” to impose a limit on mitigation to 2050 – simply mentioning the bottom of the range as an aspirational target would suffice. For leadership, an intention to bring per capita emission below 3 t CO2-eq per capita, as commensurate with an equitable domestic mitigation contribution, could be credibly presented as a positive example. Any suggestion that South Africa considers itself entitled to emissions of 20 Gt or more for 2010-2050 should be removed.
The DEA’s website announcement of consultations promises the opportunity to “…develop a common South African position… prior to communicating this to the UNFCCC secretariat.” Given the DEA and IMCCC’s record to date of getting other government departments implementing national climate policy or standing up to recalcitrant vested interests, some support from the Minister responsible for our international reputation should help to formulate a mitigation INDC consistent with South Africa’s leadership posture. Hopefully public-interest organisations will also demand something more meaningful than has been proposed so far.