OP-ED

Three reasons why South Africa should pass its Climate Change Bill

By Saliem Fakir and Prabhat Upadhyaya 13 August 2018

A dead cow in the dried mud of the empty water supply dam in the rural farming town of Senekal, South Africa, 11 January 2016. Large parts of this district and widespread areas of South Africa are experiencing the worst drought in 30 years. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

A Draft Climate Change Bill is being consulted through the length and breadth of South Africa before going to Parliament. Here is why it is essential for this bill to become law in the near future.

South Africa has a solid climate change policy – the National Climate Change Response White Paper adopted in 2011 – but it is a truism that setting up a policy in this country is no guarantee of its implementation.

Since then, there have been many factors retarding timeous, extensive and effective implementation of the White Paper.

One is the ongoing pushback by vested interests that are responsible for the bulk of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions. Second is the limited institutional capacity available with the state to implement the White Paper. Third is the difficulty in co-ordinating policy interventions across both horizontal and vertical dimensions of governance.

In addition to such retarding factors, there is always the risk that policy can be reversed. All these factors hinder mainstreaming of climate concerns across all national government departments and into core policy

The Climate Change Bill could potentially address all these concerns by creating a legally enforceable basis for action and managing companies’ emissions. The clock is ticking — the Paris Agreement comes into force post-2020, and having a climate change law in place will enable South Africa to meet its domestic and international commitments.

The global track record

A recent article — co-authored by Prabhat Upadhyaya — tracked the adoption of economy-wide climate change mitigation legislation, strategies and targets in 194 countries from 2000 to 2017.

The study found that by 2017, 94 countries (48%) had national legislation (legally enforceable) or strategies (not legally enforceable, but having political intent) in place to mitigate climate change. These 94 countries collectively covered 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 76% of the global population in 2017.

At the global level, there is a 50-50 split between countries passing legislation or undertaking a strategy to address climate change. Among developing countries, only seven countries had climate strategies in 2007, but by 2017, 44 had climate strategies in place. The number of developing countries that passed legislation on climate change increased from zero to 12 during the same time.

Alongside passing national legislation and strategies to tackle climate policy, 147 countries (76%) had also put greenhouse gas emission reduction targets in place in the build-up to the 2015 Paris Agreement (the United Nations’ climate change agreement by countries).

Accounting for the US pledge to the Paris Agreement, these targets cover 89% of all global emissions.

However, various analysis indicate that the pledges made by countries in form of their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement are woefully inadequate to keep average global temperature rise below 20C, let alone IPCC-recommended 1.50C.

Therefore, it becomes equally important to also take stock of what countries are doing over and above their pledges to the Paris Agreement.

Two such measures are promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency in our energy systems.

Here, the article found that of the 194 countries surveyed, 137 countries (accounting for 79% of greenhouse gas emissions) have national renewable targets in electricity or in the energy mix, and 59 countries (accounting for 73% of greenhouse gas emissions) have some type of energy-efficiency targets in place.

All this suggests that a global swing to tackle climate change at multiple fronts is steadily gathering steam with governments.

Taken together, the wider uptake of climate, renewable and energy-efficiency policies indicates that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not only limited to any one sector, department or country.

The African picture

While no African country had climate policies in place in 2007, by 2017, 14 African countries had such policies in place to address climate change. This is a strong development. In the run-up to the Conference of Parties 21 climate talks in Paris, 39 African countries put some sort of greenhouse gas emissions reduction target in place. So far, Kenya is the only African country that has passed a law to address climate change.

There is currently no legal obligation for the government or non-government role-players to meet the goals and objectives set in South Africa’s National Climate Change Response White Paper and hence it is not that straightforward to hold the government accountable to its policy goals. As the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions on the continent, South Africa has the responsibility as well as an opportunity to lead by providing a legal basis for its own climate policy.

In addition, the three challenges mentioned at the outset often make it difficult to implement climate policy.

The first challenge — choosing short-term interests over long-term gains — presents itself in decisions that individuals and societies make at different levels such as prioritising tasty over healthy snacks, and reducing diesel prices instead of investing in rail infrastructure for freight. Key beneficiaries from the short-term thinking are politicians seeking re-election at the end of their term and businesses trying to make profit on annual basis. During policymaking, these interests can manifest themselves in the form of reversal of policies seeking to bring in fundamental change in how a state strives to provide basic services to its citizens.

A glaring example of policy reversals is the stated intention of the US under the Trump administration to pull out from the Paris Agreement. Although it still remains part of the Paris Agreement at present, on 5 November 2020, it would be the only country that isn’t. Policy reversals by countries increase policy uncertainty and undercut the gains made by arduous global policy efforts. Revoking policies can be used as an easy escape route. Given that the existence of life as we know it is at stake, passing a Climate Change Bill is critical to ensure that this escape route is no longer an option.

The second, limited institutional capacity of any given country, is a challenge that can often pervade all domains of policymaking. As is the case with many developing countries, a country may be committed to addressing climate change but may not have resources — financial, technical and institutional — to be able to actually implement its climate policy. This is one of the key reasons why we frequently see gap between policy proclamations and policy implementation in South Africa.

The third, ensuring institutional co-ordination, depends on the institutional capacity at the disposal of the department responsible for the policy uptake, which in this instance is the Department of Environmental Affairs. Traditionally, government departments are designed to deal with problems related to their specific sectors. Such a structure works well when policy objectives pursued by one department are unaffected by those pursued by other departments.

In contrast, a wicked policy problem like climate change is not limited to any one sector. Actions taken by one department to pursue development goals may have ramifications across other sectors. This makes it difficult to address climate change in isolation. A greater emphasis on pursuing actions co-ordinated both horizontally and vertically, involving different departments and non-state actors, operating at national and sub-national levels, is needed to ensure an integrated approach to address climate change.

Think team sports like football rather than sports that depend on moments of individual brilliance.

How the Climate Bill could shake things up

Passing a Climate Change Bill is an effective way to address these challenges.

First, the bill will insulate the state’s efforts to address climate change from potential policy reversals by providing a legal basis. Most significantly, the bill will provide a legal basis to put a mandatory system of company-level carbon allowances in place, which will be managed down over time in line with South Africa’s intended national emissions trajectory (upon which its NDC targets are pegged).

Second, the bill will create legal requirements to enhance the institutional capacity of the Department of Environmental Affairs and other relevant departments to address climate change. In doing so, it will provide a strong institutional impetus to the efforts to decarbonise the South African economy.

Third, by enhancing its institutional capacity, the bill will enable the Department of Environmental Affairs to allocate resources to co-ordinate the policy interventions across different departments (Energy, Public Enterprises, Mineral Resources, Transport, Trade and Development, Agriculture and so on) and levels (provinces, cities and municipalities). This will be necessary to hold big emitters to account.

To sum it up, the bill would communicate the state’s willingness to follow through and hold itself accountable to implementing its domestic policy and meeting its international commitments. It would do so by enabling the state to reduce the gap between its policy proclamations and policy implementation on climate change through effective coordination.

If the idea of transforming South African economy by weaning it off its over-reliance on fossil fuels is to be realised then Climate Change Bill needs to be institutionalised – to embed it within the government structures and capacitate it to hold the big emitters accountable.

South Africa has had the White Paper in place for many years now. It is time to provide a legal basis for addressing climate change to enable South Africa to make its fair contribution to address climate change.

Again, the clock is ticking — a law needs to be in place before 2020 when domestic and international deadlines for the Paris Agreement come into force. DM

Saliem Fakir is the head of the WWF’s Policy and Futures Unit. Prabhat Upadhyaya is a Senior Policy Analyst for WWF’s Policy & Futures Unit. He is a co-author on the journal paper upon which this article is based.

Download the full paper here.

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