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South Africa Gears up to Host COP17

South Africa exemplifies the problem of promoting economic development in tandem with climate change mitigation.
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On a per capita basis South Africa's emissions are higher than China's.

Cape Town, South Africa:

Climate change is mobilising the people of South Africa. The 17th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Durban starts in less than a week, and 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 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. The task of leading the negotiations is by custom a privilege of the host country. After the failures of COP 15 in Copenhagen and the marginal advances in Cancún last year, the question about a post-2012 agreement still hangs over the negotiation tables like a dark cloud. Making progress towards an agreement in Durban will require great political skill and diplomatic guidance, particularly by the host country, South Africa.

There is no doubt that the South African government needs to perform better than the national soccer team bafana bafana managed at the World Cup in 2010. The Danish government was unable to guide the negotiations and manage the overall chaos of COP 15. The members of the South African delegation are aware of these mistakes. Some members were also impressed by Mexico’s sovereignty in leading COP 16 in Cancun last year - President Calderón and his delegation 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.

Home game

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 has been diverse, comprised of government, academic and business representatives. South Africa has engaged well in the negotiations in the past, informed the positions of developing countries and explored new options for aligning mitigation and development goals. This year the composition of the delegation has changed. Originally, the Department of Environmental affairs (DEA) was the ministry in charge of the negotiations. Now that South Africa is hosting 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 climate meetings preceding COP, 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 of promoting development in tandem with mitigating the effects of climate change. South Africa has a pressing need to decouple socio-economic development from fossil fuel resources. The country is the biggest economy on the African continent. Its emissions are, in per capita terms, higher than 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) entered the Convention texts in the Bali Action Plan in 2007. South Africa has been at the forefront of developing countries thinking about how mitigation actions can work domestically and how they can be supported internationally. As host of COP 17, South Africa is likely 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.

Split decision

The sun shines most of the year in South Africa. Winds blow along the more than 2,500km of Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastlines between Namibia and Mozambique. The country's rich coal reserves will last an estimated 200 years. The mining sector generates a declining, although significant proportion 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 9 billion rand (just over $1 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.

This is the big picture in South Africa; the government is yet to decide which way to go. Hosting COP17 has opened a window of opportunity for the first climate policy in South Africa. The white paper on a national climate response was approved by the Cabinet last month. In the white paper clearly the carbon constraint is, for the first time, acknowledged. 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.

Jobs and energy

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

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

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