Playing chess at the climate change table - Publications

Playing chess at the climate change table

Minister Buyelwa Sonjica at a session on climate change held during the World Economic Forum 2009. Photo by Eric Miller. This photo is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

November 17, 2009
By Leonie Joubert
By Leonie Joubert

“Haven’t you been following what’s going on out here?” The voice, a bit tinny over the long-distance connection, was that of WWF South Africa’s climate policy advocate Tasneem Essop. Something was definitely up. But news from the latest round of pre-Copenhagen negotiations on 3 November – this time happening in Barcelona, Spain – hadn’t hit the wires yet. The big news agencies still had to file their copy.

“What’s going on?” I fired back across the line, trying to wriggle my way back into the loop.

“Africa has shut down the discussions. They’re not going to any more meetings until the developed world countries come with much more ambitious numbers,” she said.

Sure enough, the Agence France Presse story came through smartly. In what it described as “an exceptional show of unity”, the story confirmed Essop’s account: that 50 African countries had refused to take negotiations any further, until developed countries changed their emissions reduction targets from an “unacceptable” 20 to 30 percent cut by 2020 on 1990 levels.

The African bloc, like so many other low-emitting developing economies, wanted a minimum commitment of 40 percent by 2020 from the heavy-weight emitters in the developed world.

This show of solidarity – of which South Africa was a part – may be far more significant than any single position that the South African negotiating  team may take on its own.

South Africa has had an interesting role to play in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emissions-reduction negotiations until how. Even though the country is a small fish in the very large pond of greenhouse gas emitters globally, it brought unexpected muscle to the previous negotiation rounds at Poznan in 2008 and Bali in 2007.

Under the then environment minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the team of South Africans sent to represent the government’s position played an unexpectedly strong diplomatic role. As Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Van Schalkwyk was credited with bridging the growing gulf of mistrust between the developed and developing world communities. The man’s firm demeanour and his familiarity with the vastly complex language of climate change, seemed further bolstered by the strong moral position which South Africa brought on the back of its peaceful transition from apartheid and the Nelson Mandela legacy.

 Internal political manoeuvring within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) saw President Thabo Mbeki being leveraged out of his position early in 2009, and replaced by his rival Jacob Zuma.

With Zuma’s inauguration came a seismic reshuffling of the cabinet in April 2009 – including the re-minting of DEAT into the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs (DWE), the sideways movement of Van Schalkwyk to his own Tourism Department, and the appointment of a new minister to head up the DWE.

Environmental journalists were uncertain about the appointment of Buyelwa Sonjica as helmsman of the DWE. She came across from the former Department of Minerals and Energy, a move which journalists were concerned might bring with it conflicting affiliations. Her lengthy budget speech in April 2009 was strong on water issues, but only had two brief references to climate change. Later public appearances (for instance, at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town in June 2009) suggested that her focus was largely on adaptation, without an equal emphasis on mitigation and that she still had to familiarise herself with many aspects of the climate change field.

Would the SA negotiating team be able to maintain its momentum at the next round of climate negotiations, with this new minister in place, journalists asked?

Many commentators and thinkers who are close to the negotiating team weren’t worried about this upheaval, saying that the ANC has a formal position regarding climate change, unveiled at its national convention held in Polokwane in 2007.

And since then, President Jacob Zuma has talked about the need to keep temperature increases below the critical 2°C threshold, relative to pre-industrial levels, in order to avoid dangerous climate change.

Those observers who aren’t concerned about the Van Schalkwyk-Sonjica shift, believe that the international multilateral process driving climate negotiations was going to force South Africa to engage with the issue, regardless of the government’s position. The Zuma reshuffle was unlikely to upset a process that is being driven by much larger, global forces.

Seven months since the cabinet change, observers are still as divided about the new minister. The problem with reporting on it, though, is that very few people are willing to go on the record with their various positions and opinions of the minister’s performance. The climate change community in South Africa is small. From the minister herself, to the bureaucrats tasked by government to negotiate on its behalf, the civil society activists, academics and researchers, right through to the journalists writing about all these issues – most of the individuals know each other by face, if not by first name. And they’re all extremely cautious about going public with a critique of how the negotiating process is being handled within the Ministry of Water and Environmental Affairs. They either prefer to allow behind-the-scenes pressure to take its course, or to allude to concerns, but not have their name attached to the comment. 

Several sources close to the negotiating team have indicated that there’s broad consensus that the position of the minister’s close advisers are occasionally problematic and not always aligned with policy. However, one critic, who asked not to be named, pointed out that these are new advisers and there’s hope that they’ll learn on the job.

“They’re entering a new field where the language is complex and coded. We need to give them time to get it right.”

South Africa nevertheless is making in-roads at a national policy level. Last year, DEAT unveiled a noteworthy policy document at Poznan – one which made a significant mark on the climate landscape: the cumbersomely named Long-Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS). Sonjica’s team is aligned to this position.

This cabinet-mandated process to guide South Africa towards a low carbon economy made SA the first developing country to recognise the need for its emissions to peak (by 2020 to 2025), flatten and then drop. Even though it didn’t say at what levels the peak would be. The mere fact that the LTMS says SA’s emissions must stop growing was hailed as a radical step for a developing country, something highlighted by the international attention it received after it was presented at Poznan. 

While the country is a long way from having the nuts and bolts it will need to actually bring about that levelling off of emissions. At least it’s admitting that the curtain needs to fall on the excuses which many developing countries have used to justify a business-as-usual position.

The LTMS states that the country’s emissions need to grow a little more because South Africa has such a large developing community, but signals both nationally and internationally are that the government understands that at some point emissions have to stop growing.

Since the LTMS was unveiled, the South African cabinet is reviewing the draft National Climate Response Policy which will give more of the practical mechanisms needed to bring about emissions reduction in the country. The Green Paper is expected out in April next year, and it should finally be signed into law some time in 2011, in the same year that South Africa has its turn to host the UNFCCC talks.

But for WWF’s climate change programme manager, Richard Worthington, choosing between development and environmental protection need not be viewed as an either-or issue.

“The whole point of the LTMS is that there is no trade-off. You can’t have one without the other. We have to realign the two and we need to have a DWE minister who understands that, if we’re to make a just transition to a low-carbon economy.”

But by the end of the day of boycotts at Barcelona, the Africa bloc caved in and agreed to continue with talks, in spite of the fact that the developed world had not budged on its target commitments. With so little time left to get an agreement in place, it looks as though Africa’s solidarity may not be enough to swing in favour of the targets needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Leonie Joubert is a freelance science journalist, columnist and author. She received an Honorary 2007 Sunday Times Alan Paton Non-Fiction Award, was the 2007 Ruth First Fellow, and was listed in the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans You Must Take To Lunch (2008). She has been published widely, including in the Sunday Independent, Sunday Argus, Sunday Tribune, African Decisions, Africa Geographic, Getaway, Progress, EarthYear, Farmers Weekly, Engineering News, Cape Times, SA4×4, Xplore and the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, amongst others. She was a regular columnist for the Mail & Guardian.


 

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