What happened to climate change?
In Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address on the 10 February 2011, the issue of climate change was conspicuous by its absence. In the first instance this raises the question on the country’s commitment to undertaking its own emission reductions set out by the President at Copenhagen (34% by and ?); and secondly, obviates the opportunity for South Africa to position itself as a key broker in negotiating the future shape and direction of such a regime. As one of the most significant events in terms of reaching an international deal on climate change, as well as managing the wider geopolitical dynamics threatening to upset the negotiations, this large scale global event should have caught the President’s, and indeed the nation’s attention.
South Africa has had a mixed record when it comes to reconciling rhetoric with practice on climate change. On the one hand the President himself was at the centre of efforts to save the Copenhagen talks through the formulation of the Copenhagen Accord, as part of the BASIC (Brazil, India, South Africa and China) Group; yet Zuma’s address to the country gave scant recognition to the challenges facing South Africa in mitigating our GHG emissions and adapting the effects of climate change. This is not the first time government’s schizophrenic approach to energy, development and climate change has come to the fore. Efforts to combat emissions from its ‘dirty’ electricity production and heavy industry has seen active policy creation; including the Renewable Energy Policy, which languished on the sidelines of the energy sector, the Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS), which remains contested, and more recently the Integrated Resource Plan 2010 and Green Paper on climate change, which are up against the continued dominance of the mineral-energy complex, government’s commitments to carbon intensive development programmes, as well as a shortfall in political leadership on climate change.
Zuma’s reference to the mining industry, without an indication of government’s effort to curb emissions, acts as a snapshot of wider thinking. The only allusion to climate change was the passing reference to renewable energy and as well as job creation, which has become the new mantra although just how many ‘green’ jobs will be created on the ground is still an area of debate. If this omission is a reflection of government thinking, it is an area that will have to be addressed if the Green Paper on climate change has any chance of being mainstreamed and implemented as part of national policy. While the Green Paper provides a number of key areas for attention in terms of both mitigation and adaptation (although there is still room for more specific approaches and time frames), it requires commitment and coordination for the long haul.
Such a patent gap in the President’s address begs the question of whether climate change’s exclusion was planned or a genuine oversight? If planned, was it aimed at moderating expectations for COP17? The upsurge in expectation preceding Copenhagen was, to a large degree, what ultimately brought it to its rather dismal end. The Mexicans did better in moderating expectations (to the extent that everyone seemed particularly pleased with the rather underwhelming outcomes). Yet if this was an oversight, the complete absence of any reference at all to the large-scale UNFCCC conference on climate change is a missed opportunity for government to state its commitment before its constituents, who are increasingly feeling the effects of climate change, to the negotiation process. If government aims to take these negotiations along the path towards an international agreement, considerable effort will need to be expended, not least by the leadership of our country. The forthcoming announcement of the president of COP17 will provide an indication of government’s thinking on climate change negotiations after a rather disappointing start to a climate focused year ahead of Durban 2011.
By Lesley Masters
17 February 2011