South Africa Needs to Start Ridding itself of its Coal Addiction

The new Paris climate treaty, which countries adopted in December, will transform the global economy. Already analysts are calling the deal a game changer for humanity.

As a signatory to the Paris agreement, South Africa will now have to start ridding itself of its coal addiction little by little. But huge questions remained on how the country would implement this Paris agreement back home.

The deal is quite ambitious, including a new stretch goal of keeping warming below 1.5°C to accompany the current hard limit of 2°C.

Once back home, countries will start to pursue the plans laid out in their domestic climate commitments, which will go into effect in 2020. And more ambition is in the pipeline.

Countries will meet again in 2018 to assess and potentially adjust their national commitments to phase out fossil fuels in their economies by 2050.

Delegates at the climate talks have not had an easy time to construct the historic agreement, and the conference ran into overtime on Saturday. Bleary-eyed negotiators wandered the halls of Le Bourget, the conference centre in northeast Paris, where the negotiations were held.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, admitted that this year’s talks were the most complicated and difficult negotiations he had ever been involved in. Civil society, which is usually scathing about what the talks deliver, was quite optimistic about the Paris agreement.

Sam Barratt of advocacy group Avaaz said getting 200 countries to agree on anything was tough.

“Getting them to agree on the future of the planet … is probably one of the toughest pieces of negotiation they’ll ever get involved in.”

But he said that Paris had indeed delivered “a turning point in history, paving the way for the shift to 100% clean energy that the world wants and the planet needs”.

Climate activist group’s co-founder Bill McKibben said every government now seemed to recognise that the fossil fuel era had to end, and soon.

“But the power of the fossil fuel industry is still reflected in the text, which drags out the transition so far that endless climate damage will be done,” he said, adding that while the deal didn’t save the planet, it may have saved the chance of saving the planet.”

The stakes were high in establishing a deal. Major developing economies China and India, with whom South Africa is closely aligned, accused rich countries of trying to railroad them into a deal that would damage their economies.

Along with South Africa, these countries insisted that no deal could be signed without rich countries committing to help finance developing countries’ switch to a low-carbon economy. They insisted that rich countries should shoulder the blame for historical warming and use their allocation of the world’s carbon budget to help developing nations.

Jackson Mthembu, chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on environmental affairs, told City Press South Africa needed to be resilient in the face of climate change and that capacity could only come from getting the necessary technologies and funds.

South Africa has committed to reducing its emissions by 34% by 2020, and 42% by 2025, on condition it receives the financing to do so.

Mthembu said Parliament would play a critical role in enforcing the Paris agreement.

“It will indeed be a very painful process,” he admitted. “But we need the strong legislation to do this. We have to legalise South Africa’s pledges at the conference into a strong legal framework back home. We will also engage industry to make this happen.”

He said South Africa had already begun work, and the country’s successful renewable energy programme was a beacon of hope. However, he insisted that the political will existed to put South Africa on a low-carbon path.

“We see the big emitters, but we’ve got an even stronger instrument at our disposal – the Constitution. South Africa, keeping in mind that we are a developing nation, must find the spirit to do this. I have children. I can’t leave a world for them where they are destined to suffer.”

He said if South Africa received the necessary assistance, he could see a future where coal would disappear off the map.

Greenpeace head Kumi Naidoo, a South African, praised South Africa’s efforts at the talks to keep developing countries together as a strong negotiating bloc. But he said there was a big disconnect in the role that South Africa played on the world stage and its domestic energy policy.

“We can’t say to the world that climate change is a problem, but back home we are building coal power stations and opening more coal mines,” he said.

“The successful countries of the future are getting ahead in the green race.”

But Naidoo said “as a result of what we have secured here in Paris, we will win”.