Backsliding and Slipping Away: Are We Blowing Our Climate Change Obligations?

By Glenn Ashton · 18 Sep 2009

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Picture: idansimpson
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The South African government is quietly disclosing information about a seismic shift in our national climate change policy. The 15th September communiqué from the new Ministry of Water and Environmental Affairs reinforces this, in stating that our medium term response to our energy crisis is a continued reliance on coal, with a long-term shift away from fossil fuels. Long term? Have we got the time?

Unchecked climate change holds an unthinkable threat not just to people but also to the entire biological matrix that allows life to continue on our planet. 

Our impact on global ecosystems is a realisation that has only really entered our consciousness over the past 50 years and hit home over the past few decades. 

This realisation was synchronous with our first space flights, which enabled humans to move beyond our atmosphere and see Earth, Terra, Gaia - call it what you will – for what it is, a fragile, luminous blue jewel, floating in an unimaginably vast vacuum of apparently chaotic randomness, as perfect in itself as anything ever seen by human eyes.

The past half-century has seen growing realisation of the real damage we are causing to our cosmic cocoon. Beside the obvious scars from clearing of rainforests, digging of mines and covering pristine landscapes with sprawling hives of people, our ascension to space enabled us to gauge how we were destroying the ozone layer. We fixed that problem by halting ozone depleting gas emissions under the Montreal protocol in the late twentieth century. Yet our releases of greenhouse gases accelerate, unabated.

We are entering a terra incognita, an occulted sense of reality, as far as understanding the impacts on our planet's atmosphere, eco- and climatic systems is concerned. Constantly revised measurements and projections show an accelerating deterioration in ecosystem stability.

It is perhaps an interesting co-incidence that the atmospheric scientist who co-designed the instrument to measure atmospheric ozone concentrations was one James Lovelock. Lovelock has since become globally renowned for evolving his vision of Earth as a living, biological system. His Gaia hypothesis shows – in a universe scale Darwinian theory - how life on our planet is the end result of cosmic, chemical and natural processes, culminating in our present level of ecological complexity and wonder.

Now in the autumn of his life, Lovelock has warned unambiguously of how we are placing the very existence of life on earth at dire risk, through our unregulated emission of greenhouse gases. Science solidly backs Lovelock's warning, despite the raucous denialism of vested interests.

Climate change influences numerous issues. There are the direct impacts on climate, on biodiversity, on society as seas rise and water resources diminish; these are the most visible effects.

Less obvious are natural feedback loops, such as how a warming Arctic is releasing vast stores of methane  – a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 - from the long frozen ground, exacerbating the problem. As ice and snow melts, less sunlight is reflected into space, speeding melting. Our entire planetary ocean current systems could be disrupted by fresh meltwater, which behaves differently to more saline, tropically warmed ocean, triggering further unpredictable weather patterns.

The combination of these effects threatens to push our global climate beyond a tipping point from which there is no return. Lovelock warns us we are already teetering on the edge.

Our most immediate challenge is to attempt to reduce the severity of these inevitable impacts to a degree that we can cope with, namely a rise of no more than one or two degrees centigrade. The projected potential of a five or six degree rise in average global temperature will be absolutely catastrophic, not just for humans but to life on earth.

Kyoto was the first step towards creating global compacts to deal with the challenges of climate change. A new global regulatory regime is presently under negotiation, to hopefully be settled in Copenhagen in December this year. Greenhouse gases must be stabilised and reduced if we are to stop the rot of our ecosphere.

Until recently South Africa has played a leading role in negotiating a consensual international position toward curbing the emission of climate change gases. Previous Environment Minister van Schalkwyk surprised many with his strong positioning of South Africa as a lead player in the negotiations.

Van Schalkwyk was relieved of his environmental portfolio and given that of Tourism alone. Now government is turning its back on dealing with the problem, at least in the medium term. 

The new environmental minister, Buyelwa Sonjica, who was previously Minister of Minerals and Energy, has shown evidence that she is out of her depth when dealing with this core ministerial responsibility. She appears reluctant to rein in the destructive policies of her old department, which would undermine her legacy, if you will. This is a conflict of interest with dire consequences. 

As the worlds biggest emitter of greenhouse gases per unit of GDP, South Africa has obligations that must be met now, not in the long-term, whenever that may occur.

The government is obliged to create frameworks that level the playing field for all business by reducing emissions across the board. They are failing in their duty. The questionable commitment to climate change is but one zephyr in a building storm that threatens to fray the flag of our national climate change policies. 

This ill wind rounded several points to the right in early September, when an apparently revised cabinet policy regarding global warming negotiations emerged. Spokesperson Themba Maseko clearly stated government was loath to set targets for emissions reductions that would reduce our ability to generate sufficient power through new coal power stations. 

Maseko emphasised the responsibility of developed nations to make adjustments that would not incur unaffordable costs on developing nations dealing with the issue. While apparently fair, this dangerous gambit threatens the success of the Copenhagen negotiations in December.

Government policy also shifted recently in allowing Eskom to renege on commitments to proceed with renewable energy wind and solar projects. Instead the state - and Eskom - have thrown vast amounts of cash at the increasingly controversial Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR). The latest news is that the PBMR programme is dead in the water. Good money turned bad.

If the government had spent half of what it has poured into the glowing hole of the PBMR, on renewables, South Africa would be at least half way toward reaching our renewable energy target of around 10, 000-GWh capacity by 2015. Instead we are nowhere near reaching any kind of target, most notably because of this recent abandonment of renewable programmes.

That government permitted Eskom to renege on its commitment is a serious cause for concern, especially in the unaccountable manner of its execution. Eskom's historical reluctance to embark on renewable energy programmes, whilst effectively setting national energy policy through its parastatal structures, illustrates the self-interested short-termism that informs our national energy policy.

The perverse influence of Eskom and fossil fuel mining houses continues us down the energy road embarked upon by the Apartheid government. This is in spite of knowledge that renewable energy creates far higher employment, innovation and research potential while improving health and services to remote locations, not to mention its role in reducing rampant greenhouse gas emissions. 

The new “green” paper on emerging policy also fails to mainstream climate change policy. Whilst mentioned thrice, once stating that specialist advisory panels may be set up to study the issue, the issue remains insufficiently integrated into the national agenda. That we need yet another specialist panel to study the issue is manifestly absurd. 

The draft Medium Term Strategic Framework revision, outlining the implementation of the next 5 years of government policy, has an equally isolated mention of the issue.

Revised government thinking has been laid bare by the most recent Department of Water Affairs and Environment statement. Coal is king; renewables have been sidelined, with a proposed “gradual shift” to renewables, over the “longer term.” This from our department of Environment? At this rate a renewables programme will never materialise.

South Africa has multifaceted obligations to deal with climate change. We are signatory to international agreements dealing with the matter. We are an established player in international negotiations. But perhaps more importantly we have a moral and ethical inter-generational obligation to deal with our disproportionate emission levels, internationally, regionally, nationally, collectively and individually. We can no longer postpone the inevitable or we will bequeath our children a wasteland. This is what our present policies promise.

National climate change policy needs to move from the periphery to the mainstream. We must establish agreed targets and indicators that create measurable results. Simply setting a vague target of 'long term' and then continuing business as usual is no longer acceptable. 

The intangibility of climate change masks it. Not noticing the changes does not mean they are not happening.

The tragedy is that the government has left everything so late. Climate change was an issue when our new government was formed. If we had started to act 15 years ago we would at least have had some impacts. We could have become a world leader in alternative energy instead of falling for an ill conceived but well marketed and spun PBMR. Consequently we have yet to begin to deal meaningfully with the profound challenges we face. We need no more hot air from politicians – we need action at the base of the smokestacks

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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17 Sep

Fair Enough, But...

South Africa produces 1.5% of the world's CO2 and we are the 47th largest producer per Capita (not the largest, as you claim - we are the largest in Africa). Our overall contribution is tiny, and, while I agree we MUST look toward alternate energy policies, we cannot do it by impoverishing ourselves to the benefit of "developed" nations.

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17 Sep


@ Foom's - SA's co2 emissions per capita are equal to the UK and greater than France and Spain, and we are the 13th largest total emitter of co2 in the world. I wouldn't exactly say our overall contribution is "tiny".

As the article correctly points out, we have one of the most carbon intensive economies in the world, mainly because of our almost complete reliance on coal but also because as a country we use the energy we create very inefficiently. It would be very easy to cut our total co2 emissions by 10 - 15% with very little initial investment by looking at energy efficiency and demand reduction...problem is Eskom's bottom line is directly related to how much energy it sells, so demand reduction is hardly mentioned. We'd rather build more power stations than use the energy we have more wisely.

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17 Sep

SA, Fair Enough...

thanks for the comments. Just to clarify two things - I dont think there is any implication our emissons are tiny - they are in fact disproportionately large! I did not say we are the largest producer per capita, but per unit of GDP per capita we are in fact the heaviest energy addicts. Of course it is also worthwhile remembering the fact that a lot of this goes to feed the greed of the mining and aluminium industry, especially in light of the price they pay for the power.

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Bashar Teg
18 Sep

But Why Surrender Policy Space Internationally

Great article, and while it argues both for national and international action, it fails to explain the details of what a global commitment to cut emissions for SA will mean without Finance and Technology. And I cannot believe that the rich countries deficit in meeting their current commitments is not mentioned with equal verve as SA's lack of action! Why, because even many progressive environmentalists were part of the DECEPTION of pushing a global cut with implications for poor countries, without explaining the implication. This typical liberal stance that preserves rich country status quo while condemning the poor to continued poverty AND climate damage. Time for us to move away from status quo tolerant liberal environmentalism to a fair and equitable deal. If these values matter that is.

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20 Sep


I think Bashar is completely correct - the issue of proportionality regarding emissions and obligations to deal with them is absolutely crucial to a solution. However it is a dangerous road to go down as India and China will both plead to be in the same situation as other southern nations in Copenhagen in an attempt to defer emission cuts. However China and even India are moving towards renewables, mitigation, etc far faster than we are. We must both push the north into subsidising technology transfers and financial breaks, while also forcing them to make cuts. Will they not feel they are being pushed into a corner then? There are lots of issues around the international negotiations, which need other perspectives and articles! And these will no doubt come.....

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