Opinionista

The climate crisis and South Africa’s mitigation objectives are a credibility test for Cabinet and science-based policy

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Richard Worthington matriculated in Bloemfontein, got a BA degree at Wits in 1984, returned to South Africa in the mid-1990s and joined Earthlife Africa Johannesburg. He has since worked on energy and climate change issues in the NGO sector including serving WWF-SA for five years to 2013. He is currently a project manager at the South African office of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and writes in his personal capacity.

South Africa’s climate mitigation objective is before Cabinet as part of our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) — the instrument by which parties to the Paris Agreement formalise commitments to action against climate change. Energy Governance SA has submitted an open letter to Cabinet calling for the NDC to be made consistent with a global goal of limiting global heating to 1.5°C.

The launch of the first part of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) by Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is particularly timely for the updating of South Africa’s climate change mitigation objectives, as is required ahead of the 26th session of multilateral negotiations of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November.

The advances in the science of climate change, particularly analyses of the relationship between increasingly frequent and extreme weather events and the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, provide for a detailed and intimidating catalogue of the impacts associated with “every additional increment in global warming” — basically the perils of global heating exceeding 1.5°C by even one- or two-tenths of a degree.

The updating of SA’s mitigation objective is soon to be considered by Cabinet as part of our Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) — the instrument by which parties to the Paris Agreement formalise commitments to climate action, including adaptation. This follows intensive deliberation of the NDC by the Presidential Climate Commission, informed by up-to-date analysis of opportunities at the national level, especially within our electricity system.

Following the release in June of the First Report of the commission, with recommendations to Cabinet including for making our 2030 mitigation objectives more ambitious, the civil society network Energy Governance SA submitted an open letter to Cabinet. Noting that the emissions numbers recommended fall well short of reductions that appeared to have the support of most commissioners, the letter submits that the Updated NDC that Cabinet is to finalise for tabling in Parliament must be made consistent with a global goal of 1.5°C.

Few arguments against more ambitious mitigation objectives were made in the commission (at least in the formal meetings streamed online), such as that there should be plenty of “flexibility” for the operation of market mechanisms, or that we should defer setting a science-based upper limit to the next five-year cycle, to avoid any constraint on economic growth. The open letter contends:

“Such short-sighted perspectives of vested interests are in denial of the real pace of change, most particularly within the electricity supply industries, but also within the development finance and investment sectors. Appeals to ‘realism’ in opposing an unambiguous pledge to ambitious action are either anachronistic or premised on an assumption of a global failure to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“The less ambitious our national objectives for 2030… the greater the obstacles we leave in the way of reducing poverty and inequality and the more daunting the challenges we impose on our children. There is nothing to gain by deferring… as our opportunities for mitigation are so large and affordable now. An ambitious pledge will strengthen prospects for climate finance and should be aligned with the accelerated retirement of coal-fired power plants, as being assessed for a financing proposal being developed with Eskom and that may be our last chance — given rapidly evolving electricity technologies — to secure a really large concessionary investment in our national electricity system.”

The open letter recognises the principle that, as a developing country, SA should not be expected to decarbonise our economy as rapidly as the richer and more industrialised big emitters. For example, against the IPCC’s ambition benchmark of global emissions in 2030 being 45% below 2010 emissions, SA could at a stretch make a case that, in light of our national circumstances and challenges, achieving 30% below 2010 should be considered as doing our fair share.

Such an objective (equivalent to emissions of up to 383 Mt CO2eq in 2030), as the letter observes, “would only require implementing some of the no-regrets measures, additional to existing policies, that have been modelled, as noted in the substance of the PCC First Report”.

The Energy Governance-SA letter goes on to support “the Climate Equity Reference Project’s fair share calculations for South Africa [that] indicate that South Africa’s fair share range, on a 1.5°C pathway, would be 274-352 Mt CO2-eq”.

Those numbers, released two months ago following an update to the international Equity Reference Calculator, are derived from detailed modelling of national economies and emissions and their opportunities and challenges for mitigation using assumptions based on the latest available information — unlike most of the modelling and analysis being used by our government (as is exemplified by continuing adherence to the electricity generation build plan in the so-called Integrated Resource Plan adopted in 2019).

While in principle stakeholders could appeal to parliamentarians to improve upon what is tabled by Cabinet, the intention to formally submit the NDC to the UN before the end of September (which is imperative for SA not to blatantly undermine the multilateral process), effectively rules out the kind of hearings that might consider improvement. It is, therefore, necessary for Cabinet, using the best available information, to align our international pledge to climate action with a sincere attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.

There are ministers still taking the view that a mitigation pledge is an unfair imposition or unnecessary constraint, instead of an essential component of responsible development planning, as well as a foundation for securing sustainable foreign investment. We appeal that they take a good look at the 40-page Summary for Policy-Makers of the latest output of the IPCC (AR6) and the litany of escalating impacts that can be avoided by cutting emissions sufficiently before 2030. OBP/DM

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    • I do not doubt our Ministers’ literacy – though their willingness to apply it to inconvenient truths is certainly in question. What really doesn’t help is the likes of BUSA pushing the position that SA should not commit to an emissions pathway consistent with what is required by science (with application of the equity principle making allowance for our less-developed status); basically claiming an entitlement to emit up to 440 Mt CO2e in 2030, when current analysis shows both that we can reduce SA emissions to within a fair share, and offers a range of policies to drive such reductions (with significant co-benefits). Business associations that are promoting the 440 Mt cap – also what emerged as a recommendation in the First Report of the Presidential Climate Commission – have failed to align with science and rather exhort our ministers to defer to their estimation of what SA needs, i.e. an expedient and unjustifiable appropriation of an excessive potion of the global carbon budget.

      • …an excessive portion of the global carbon budget (limit on cumulative emissions to give just half a chance of stabilising at 1.5 degrees average global heating)