The 2009 Climate Summit which closed on Friday was a giant step for South Africa in recognising the severity and implications of climate change, as well as bringing together key stakeholders in the climate policy discussion. Climate change received a much needed spotlight for the week, and President Kgalema Motlanthe utilised his speech to instil some optimism to the 893 delegates gathered, and endorse the need for ‘green growth.’ This is an imperative if government is seen to be serious in shifting South Africa’s position as the 14th greatest emitter of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely due to 90% of electivity being derived from the countries ample coal reserves.

The summit was hailed by the Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, as creating ‘milestone’ steps towards comprehensive and effective climate policy. The engagement of business was also flagged by van Schalwyk as essential, especially in partnering with the government to create a low carbon economy.  However South Africa’s business sector’s grasp of the significance of their role in creating a low carbon economy is debatable. 

Van Schalkwyk utilised the summit to showcase the government’s commitment to emission reductions and its progression towards mandatory emissions reductions.  This has major implications on South Africa’s economy, largely based upon significant natural resource extraction and conversion, sectors that will face fundamental changes if and when mandatory regulations are implemented.

Creating this change in mind set in the business sector is a huge challenge. The Department for Environment Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) needs to remain dedicated and on course to implement mandatory emissions cuts.  DEAT will face strong and economically persuasive opposition from the private and public sectors who continue to advocate voluntary emissions reduction measures.  This coupling and relationship between business leaders and government policy discourse needs to be managed sensitively as the emissions cuts South Africa needs are going to be made through public and private innovation.  This innovation is needed to deploy suitable technologies to harness renewable energy; essential to achieve van Schalwyk’s vision of a low carbon economy.

A major stumbling block to the low carbon economy is the absence of policy frameworks promoting renewable energy and a lack of incentives for investors.  The summit was however successful in stressing the importance of renewable energy. Nelisiwe Magubane, Depurty Director General at the Department of Mineral Affairs and Energy, signalled the governments commitment to dealing with these pivotal hurdles commenting on the drafting of a feed-in tariff which aims to stimulate the large scale investment that is needed.

Shadowing the optimism of Van Schalwyk’s comments is a report released this week by Oxfam International and Earthlife Africa.  The report highlighted South Africa’s vulnerability due to the predominant arid and semi arid environments which will be extremely sensitive to the anticipated volatility in flood and drought conditions associated with climate change.  This is of particular consequence to subsistence and small scale agriculturalists.  In this respect the summit has indicated positive moves for climate policy – devolution to a provincial level so all stakeholders, especially those most afflicted can become involved in policy discourse. 

Climate policy discussions are complicated  and intertwined with South Africa’s convoluted history. Over four million households don’t use electricity to cook and two million households use candles as their primary lighting source. Over 70% of the rural households still utilise fuel wood and paraffin as fuel sources.  The government needs to take stock of these critical shortfalls in energy usage and capitalise on the existing 36 000MW of power generation capacity.  More importantly for the bigger picture, government must make intelligent decisions about South Africa’s future optimum energy mix; namely reforming its coal dependent energy sector.  As President Motlanthe fittingly commented at the close of the summit; ‘we owe it to the millions of people who will be directly affected by climate change’.

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