South Africa accused of weakening emissions target

WWF warns emerging economy is manipulating baseline data to lower ambition in draft contribution to UN climate deal

A disused coal-fired plant in Soweto. (Flickr/ Tracy Hunter)

A disused coal-fired plant in Soweto, Johannesburg in 2011. Coal power makes up the country’s energy needs (Flickr/ Tracy Hunter)

By Alex Pashley

South Africa’s pitch to curb carbon emissions cuts polluting industries too much slack, according to WWF.

For its contribution to a UN global warming agreement this year, the emerging economy is set to stick with goals laid out in 2010.

A government discussion paper published this month reaffirmed the commitment to cut greenhouse gases by 42% by 2025 below a business-as-usual scenario. Emissions will level out around 2030 and fall from 2036, it said.

But WWF accused the government of manipulating the figures to actually weaken the level of ambition.

Louise Naude, climate expert at the NGO, voiced concern the baseline could be “conveniently recalculated, allowing big emitters and other special interest groups to avoid their obligations”.

South Africa draft climate pledge

One-fifth of the BRICS grouping and current head of the developing world G77 negotiating bloc, South Africa accounts for more than 1% of global emissions.

As the country tries to reconcile climate objectives with poverty reduction, its energy sector’s reliance on coal puts up obstacles.

“Zero poverty is over-riding and crucial priority for South Africa, even as we need a world that moves to net-zero GHG emissions,” says the draft pledge.

“South Africa is putting in place a mitigation system, to realise the opportunities of a low-carbon economy while being mindful that a just transition requires time and careful development.”

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In 2010, the proposed target would have seen emissions total 17.8 billion tonnes over forty years, WWF said. Since then, the upper limit had risen to 23Gt.

Having already veered off its low carbon path, South Africa needed to cut emissions “faster and more sharply, not keep giving ourselves more slack,” Naude said in a statement.

“We are seeing strong pushback from special interests, such as the fossil fuel industry and some businesses which will come under pressure in a low-carbon regime – and those in government who do not yet grasp that a shift to a lower carbon economy is the developmental path to pursue.”

The government had used confusing methodologies and data to present its emissions reduction as its fair share in a global deal, she added.

In June, before the latest draft was published, analysts at the Climate Action Tracker said the planned cuts could not be viewed as ambitious. They warned that without new policies, emissions could soar 82% on 1990 levels by 2025.

“The CAT projection for South Africa’s emissions under current policies has an increasing trend, with emissions in 2020 and 2025 expected to increase by 110% and 141%, respectively, from 1990 levels,” they wrote.

Room for manoeuvre

Almost 200 nations are set to strike a global warming agreement at a Paris summit in December. All are expected to file an “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) by October.

Weak INDCs from developed countries such as Australia, Canada and Japan made it understandable that South Africa wants to leave itself “a lot of negotiating flexibility”, said WWF’s top climate official Tasneem Essop.

“But to maintain their standing as a global leader in the climate change negotiations, and as co-chair of the G77+China, South Africa needs to table a stronger climate plan, given its position as an emerging economy which is among the world’s top 20 emitters.”

South Africa faces costs of up to US$30 billion a year next decade, the government estimates, as climate change raises the threat of wildfires, storms, droughts and floods.

The draft plan notes it has attracted investment in 5,243 megawatts of renewable energy capacity and is considering a further 6,300MW.

It is also inviting bids to build eight new nuclear plants with a capacity of 9,600MW, at an estimated cost of $100 billion.

Meanwhile, it is constructing 12 coal power plants, according to researchers at Coal Swarm.

These include a giant plant at Medupi, reputed to be the largest dry-cooled coal-fired plant in the world – built with $3 billion of World Bank funding.

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