Variable cloudiness? South Africa and the COP 17

Climate change mobilizes South Africa’s people at the moment more than usual. The Conference of the Parties (COP) in Durban starts next week. Conferences and events on climate change, green cities and low carbon development are raising consciousness and provoking discussions all over the country. Excitement is huge about this big event that the country will host for the first time. South Africa successfully hosted the soccer World Cup in 2010, proving its capacity to deal with the logistics for big events. Logistically, the Durban conference is peanuts compared to the World Cup, but, of course, there will be no FIFA to assist. The task of leading the negotiations is by custom a privilege of the host country. After the failures of Copenhagen and the marginal advances in Cancún last year, the question about a post-2012 agreement still hangs over the negotiation tables like a big dark cloud. Making progress towards an agreement in Durban requires great political skills and diplomatic guidance, particularly by the host country, South Africa.

At this level, there is no doubt that South African government needs to perform better than the national soccer team Bafana Bafana at the World Cup in 2010. The Danish government was unable to guide the negotiations and to manage the overall chaos of the COP 15 in Copenhagen. The members of the South African delegation are aware of these mistakes. Some of them were also impressed by Mexico’s sovereignty in leading the COP 16 in Cancún, last year. President Calderón and his delegation at the time had a clear understanding of what the outcome should be and how it could be achieved. The Technology Mechanism and the Adaptation Fund were clear outcomes.

In the South African case, the objectives are less clear. South Africa’s delegation to the climate convention has enjoyed a good reputation in the past. The delegation was diverse, comprised of government, academia and business representatives. South Africa has engaged well in the negotiations in the past and informed the positions of developing countries and explored new options for aligning the mitigation and development goals. This year the composition of the delegation has changed. Originally, the Department of Environmental affairs (DEA) was the line ministry in charge of the negotiations. Now that South Africa is hosting the COP, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has claimed a mandate for hosting this international event. President Zuma has lacked the ability to take a clear decision and –as opposed to picking one minister to be in charge– he split the mandate between the two ministries. Dual leadership is a problematic concept. Both ministers have not performed as a team in a convincing manner during the climate meetings previous to COP yet, although they claim to have settled their quarrels and found a division of tasks. Robust leadership is not only necessary for navigating the negotiating parties through the troubled waters of international diplomacy, but also in the government as a whole to make urgent decisions about South Africa’s energy future.

South Africa exemplifies the problem to promote development while mitigating climate change. South Africa has the pressing need to decouple socio-economic development from fossil resources. The country is the biggest economy on the African continent. Its emissions equal in relative terms to China’s. The problem about mitigation vs. development is urgent, but this urgency has not yet received proportionate attention within the climate negotiations. The term ‘nationally appropriate mitigation action’ (NAMA) has entered the Convention texts in the Bali Action Plan in 2007. South Africa has been at the forefront of developing countries in thinking mitigation action and how they can work domestically and how they can be supported internationally. South Africa is likely as a host of the COP to bring forward the NAMA discussions, because the government is concerned about finding solutions to development and mitigation. These solutions are a matter of policy choices.

The sun shines most of the year in South Africa. Winds blow along the more than 2500 km of coastlines of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans between Namibia and Mozambique. The rich coal reserves last for about an estimate of 200 years. The mining sector generates most of South Africa’s GDP. About 800 nuclear experts, involved in the pebble bed modular reactor, an R&D project that was halted in April 2010 after absorbing about R9 billion, wait for employment in the new nuclear power plants. The sites for building a so-called ‘nuclear fleet’ have been approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

That is the big picture in South Africa. The government has not yet decided which way to go. Hosting the COP has opened a window of opportunity for the first climate policy in South Africa. The white paper on a national climate response has passed the cabinet last month. The white paper acknowledges clearly the carbon constraint, for the first time. Yet it does not take a detailed position on the future compositions of the energy mix and the concrete steps to reaching the emissions reductions.

In a country with about 25% of the population unemployed, about 50% living below the poverty line, and 43% of its people living in rural areas, a decentralized energy system based with a large share of renewable energy sources seems a viable option to ensure energy access and to exploit potentials job creation through local renewable energy technology manufactures and services, especially for lower skilled workers and people in the rural areas. A large-scale renewable energy program seems a less likely scenario since the incentives decreased with the decision to abandon the feed in tariff (REFIT) earlier this year. Energy security, on the other hand, is crucial for the economic development and the energy intensive industries in the country. Those industries make a strong case to maintain centralized coal fired plants, and possible nuclear energy sources as the core to the energy mix.

Sturdy advocacy coalitions defend their interests for and against centralized coal and nuclear strategies and for and against decentralized renewable energy systems, in South Africa. The challenge to reduce poverty and create jobs through the energy policy choices is persistent. But it’s not yet clear which mitigation technologies will score for the best energy mix for South Africa. It’s a matter of power, cost, democracy and choice.

Published in think Africa press