The European Union’s climate tzar Frans Timmermans says the EU and the rest of the West have to do much more to help developing countries adapt to climate change if they want to win their support for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions at the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow this year.
But he is also very clear that whatever happens, whether in Europe or in South Africa, “there’s no future in coal”.
That’s the message Timmermans – who is Vice President of the EU Commission and flag bearer of its “Green Deal” – took back to Brussels and delivered to the EU member states’ environment ministers after visiting South Africa last week. The Green Deal aims to make Europe “climate-neutral” – i.e. with no net emissions of greenhouse gases – by 2050, in part by converting to a “circular economy” with more materials recycled and services replacing manufacture.
The historic Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015 established a goal of limiting warming to well below 2℃, aiming at 1.5℃. But the national commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which countries submitted in Paris have proved to be inadequate to reach those targets. So countries are now expected to commit to greater cuts at Glasgow, five years on.
Timmermans said his experience of COP25 in Madrid in December 2019 had showed him that if COP26 were to succeed, the EU and African Union (AU) positions would have to be aligned as closely as possible – and South Africa’s leadership was key to getting the AU on board. Madrid had also made very clear to him “that we have to be serious about adaptation because that was the bone of contention between the two in the past”.
Aggravating the problem, other industrialised nations “who didn’t want to do anything, started hiding and using this as a pretext not to have to move themselves”. Though he didn’t name them, he seemed to be referring to big industrialised emerging markets like India (and perhaps China) who use their official developing world status to attack the developed world for failing to keep all their promises to help the developing world – even as they themselves continue to churn out many tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“So I don’t want to give them that excuse any more,” Timmermans said.
“And on top of that I want to be acquainted with the specific challenges South Africa faces. Because apart from being the leader on this and having done tremendous work at the past COPs – without South Africa it’s hard to imagine that Paris (COP21) would have been crowned with success – it’s also a country with a specific challenge in this area, given its coal dependency.”
Timmermans met Deputy President David Mabuza, several Cabinet ministers, including Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Barbara Creecy, as well as parliamentarians, youth groups and representatives of the hydrogen industry, which Timmermans sees as key to both Europe’s and South Africa’s clean energy future.
Timmermans rated his visit a success because aligning the positions of the EU and South Africa and the AU required focus at the highest level. “And that clearly is present in South Africa.”
It was still early days to say what exactly Pretoria would do at COP26.
“But I think they understand they’re in a strong position, also in the presidency (chair) of the African Union, to prepare us well, at least to see to what extent we can come closer together in preparation for the COP. There’s no guarantee we will have that. But at least we know what we want to achieve and I know what the priorities are.
“It was also good for me to learn from so many people that the issue of climate change might not be the first concern of people who are struggling,” he added. “If you are struggling to reach the end of the month, the end of the world is not your primary concern.
“But I am convinced that many, many South Africans are looking at the weather, at the droughts and the storms and the wildfires and saying, ‘We’ve got a problem’.”
Timmermans seemed to be a bit taken aback by the strength of the argument he heard from the South African government – though more from some officials than others – that the EU had to keep its side of the bargain before South Africa would help it. “It’s been made very clear to me if there is no strong commitment on the European side on the issue of adaptation, it’s going to be very difficult to get an aligned position. I take that back home so I can debrief ministers. And I can tell them we need to step up our act on adaptation.”
What specifically could the EU give South Africa and Africa?
“A number of things. Of course, not every African country is at the same stage of development. With South Africa specifically it’s not only about adaptation; it’s also about economic cooperation, it’s about trade, it’s about science and technology. We also discussed that at length. It’s about seeing how we can bring some of the more promising developments in new energy to a higher level so that they become marketable.
“But for Africa in general the message that we need to do more, to actually be more concrete in terms of the promises we’ve made to support adaptation in Africa is very clear. Though Africa also needed to do its bit.”
Timmermans agreed that one of the big promises which the EU and the North more broadly needed to keep was to properly fund the Green Climate Fund, launched in 2010, for which rich countries originally pledged $100-billion a year, to help poorer countries mitigate and adapt to climate change. In reality the developed world has only put a little more than an accumulated $10-billion into the fund. Timmermans agreed that the Green Climate Fund commitments were largely still “only on paper. And so that’s why we need to follow through and show that we’re going to put money on the table. Real money.”
The EU also intended to launch tailor-made climate programmes for the different states of Africa.
The EU had special and converging interests with South Africa because it was an industrialised country. One issue which came up all the time in his discussions in South Africa was the “just transition” – from coal as an energy source to renewable energy. “That’s the big, big issue.”
The EU had also made plans for just transition. “We have 30 coal mining regions that need to move to a different economic structure. South Africa has a huge challenge, obviously, in that area. Our ambition in Europe is to leave no one behind. And I clearly heard in South Africa also, the ambition is to leave no one behind.”
He had agreed with Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan to share the EU’s experiences of transitional regions “so we can showcase some of our experiences, both positive and negative. So some lessons can be learned, and some mistakes avoided.” He was very interested in learning about that.
Europe and South Africa confronted the same issue. “Whether it’s in 10 or 15 or 20 years in Europe or a bit longer in other parts of the world, I honestly believe there is no future in coal. I think we need to be honest with our constituents about that. Not that that’s going to be ending tomorrow. Governing, politics, is not just about tomorrow, it’s also about the long-term future. And in the long-term future we have to develop alternatives. Both in terms of our energy sources, but also in terms of our economic activities in coal mining regions.”
As the grandson of a coal miner he knew the transition from coal could be very difficult and painful. But he had never met a coal miner whose ambition has been for his son also to be a coal miner.
“If we really want Paris to be a success, then we have to organise a just transition out of coal.”
He said he was encouraged that from Mabuza down, everybody he had met understood this.
“And if South Africa is committed to the Paris Agreement, that means carbon neutrality somewhere in the second half of the century.”
Apart from getting out of coal, everyone also had to develop CCS – carbon capture and storage – and seek a different energy mix. Apart from the climate, coal had no future simply for economic reasons.
“I think that coal exports from SA have already halved. And that’s not going to get much better, probably. And renewable energy is getting cheaper and cheaper.
“And this country is ideally placed. You have the sun, you have the wind, you have the coastline, ideally placed to be extremely successful in renewable energy, wind and solar.”
He cited Poland as a European example of the declining economics of coal. The country gets 80% of its energy from coal, but doesn’t use it or sell it. “They’re stocking it and they’re buying cheaper Russian coal.” Coal was dying because it was so carbon intensive. And because there were alternatives. “The Stone Age didn’t come to an end because of a lack of stones,” he quipped.
Another major convergence which he saw between the EU and South Africa was that both had steel industries which needed to be decarbonised – and hydrogen could be the way to do it.
“We’re going to decarbonise our steel industry. It would be wonderful if we could in parallel help South Africa decarbonise its steel industry. Steel is now produced with coal. But in the very near future, and it’s already close to market in Europe, we’re going to produce steel with hydrogen. And South Africa is ideally placed to produce a lot of hydrogen. It could even be an export product in the future.”
And if South Africa could also produce steel with hydrogen, it could achieve a strategic advantage over the Americans, Chinese and others, by selling the car industry carbon-neutral steel. The European steel industry was already seeing this as a huge economic opportunity.
Timmermans met hydrogen power advocates while in South Africa, at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Hydrogen South Africa (HySA), a government research programme to develop South Africa’s hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies. He understood from those meetings that, given the geographic location of South Africa and its surroundings, it needed export markets for its hydrogen.
And South Africa and Europe could work together on hydrogen which was definitely going to be a big thing in Europe. South Africa was very well placed to develop green hydrogen because of its large resources of water, sun and wind, with which it could desalinate enough salt water both to address its fresh water shortages and to produce hydrogen.
Noting Minister of Mineral and Energy Resources Gwede Mantashe’s recent preoccupation with natural gas, Timmermans said gas could be a transitional energy carrier to hydrogen. Gas was certainly cleaner than coal, and the infrastructure for gas was quite easily adaptable to also transport hydrogen.
“And the blending of gas and hydrogen is also a possibility.”
But how helpful would it really be if the EU achieved its target of climate neutrality by 2050 while other big greenhouse gas emitters – especially the US – continued to deny and defy man-made climate change?
“The thing is, whatever political agenda some people might have, Mother Nature is reminding us of the fact that there is a problem, every day,” he rejoined.
“And that problem’s not going to go away. Even if we are very successful and we limit the rise of temperature to 1.5℃ (above pre-industrial levels), we will still have to do a lot of adaptation because the weather will remain erratic. And we will have more natural disasters and storms.
“But if we let it get out of hand and let it go to 2℃ or 3℃ or 4℃, then it gets completely out of control. Then we’re really in trouble. So I say, without irony and without hesitation, that it is an existential issue for humanity.”
Timmermans said the developed world could not say to the developing world; “No, no, you can’t get to our level because we can’t afford that. That’s not a proposition anyone can make. So we have to adapt; there is no alternative.”
And the US was adapting even if the Trump White House was not.
He cited the recent decision by the world’s largest asset management firm, BlackRock, to join the global investor campaign to pressure the biggest polluting companies.
“All these huge investors with billions and billions of dollars are saying we’re moving towards green investment. That’s corporate America. The thing is, for small and medium sized enterprises it’s more difficult because then you’re looking at next year and the year after. But corporations need to look 20, 30, 40 years ahead. And they’ve done the math. They know where this is going. They’re quickly changing. And I think this change is not incremental, it’s exponential.”
This was also happening at lower levels of the US government, the states and cities. “So that society is moving in that direction even if the White House is not. They even attempt, if I understand correctly, to depict the coronavirus as a hoax. It takes a stretch of the imagination to do that.”
Timmermans also thought China, the world’s second largest economy and largest manufacturer, was on the right path, though facing difficulties.
“China’s facing a couple of challenges now. It began with the trade dispute (with the US). Because China knows it needs to make these changes, for two reasons. First, an environmental reason because they have a problem in the cities. And they have a problem with a water shortage; pollution problems. So they need to do that.
“And second, they don’t see the European Green Deal as a deal just to reduce emissions. They see it as an economic strategy because it’s about economic transformation… We combine the need to address a climate crisis with the need to ensure that the industrial revolution lands well for the whole of society.
“So we need to regulate it to serve all of society, otherwise you will have just a few winners, as you can see in big tech now. And a lot of people losing out. So we combined the two. And the elements in this which the Chinese find most interesting is the economic element. So they see the Green Deal as an economic strategy, which is good because it means they will engage with us. To do what they mean to do and want to do, they need a certain margin in their economy. It’s very costly.
“And the trade dispute I think has eaten away the margin. So that’s why they are a bit hesitant at this stage. Not about where they need to go but the pace they need to go at. So I hope when we get out of the situation we’re in today, with looming trade conflicts, that perhaps we can speed up. But I’m generally optimistic about the Chinese commitment to this and I hope we can get some good results in Glasgow. Let’s not forget that the Chinese were extremely helpful to get the Paris Agreement done.”
Timmermans said the growing number of climate catastrophes around the world were persuading the developing world that it had to cut emissions, no matter what the developed world did.
“By and large, I believe that everyone’s moving in the same direction. Because Mother Nature is unforgiving.”
But he also believes the industrialised world still has a responsibility to do more and the developing world will move faster if the West does help. DM
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