COP17: the play of power and politics

Submitted by JimmySprout on Wed, 2011-11-23 13:10

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Lance Greyling, MP and National Policy Convenor to the DA, recently hosted a talk on South Africa and Climate Change. What quickly evolved was an intricate debate on climate change, COP17 and the politics behind our power sources, how they are impacting our world globally and locally, and what we can (or should) expect in the next few years.

With COP17 just around the corner, there is a growing deliberation around what this year’s Durban hosted conference will achieve.

After the Kyoto Protocol was brought into force in 2005, industrialised countries were bound by a legal treaty to reduce their combined GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by at least 5% over the period of 2008 - 2012. This was a big step in the right direction, from a convention to a legal commitment, the protocol created some certainty around the fate of much of our global emissions. The problem we face this year: the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in 2012 and the destiny of any legal obligations rests on the outcomes of COP17. Not only does this put pressure on the conference’s ability to fashion a new set of legal guidelines, but the on-going developing versus developed countries debate will inevitably become more intense than ever…

One of these debates is likely to revolve around the Adaptation Fund. Created to help developing countries with adaptation projects and programmes in response to climate change, it has thus far proved rather "static". Despite its conception in Kyoto, it only really came into effect after COP15 in Copenhagen at which stage it was agreed that by 2020 a fund of $100 million would be available to developing countries. But according to Greyling who was present at COP, the Copenhagen Accord “became a political deal of aspirations”. Developed countries seem to have had enough with developing countries that have high-emission rates, despite the fact this may be crucial in their long-term sustainability.

COP16 was held in Cancun last year and again politics ruled. Greyling once again attended and noted how “rebuilding multi-lateralism” between countries seemed more important than the environmental and social topics laid out for COP. The Copenhagen Accord was still trying to be cemented down and politics kept the real issues at bay. “There was no success on international efforts that were set out for the COP” said Greyling.


“What we don’t want from Durban (COP17) is the graveyard of Kyoto Protocol as this would mean losing the legally-bound emissions targets” said Greyling. But this will prove difficult because, more than ever, the large industrialised countries will be stepping on the toes of developing countries to commit to their own set of regulations and targets. “The industrialised countries want a pledge and review system, but this will have no legal framework and it is unlikely that the EU will agree”. What we really need is a “global treaty, but importantly this would need common but differentiated responsibilities”. Greyling also stipulated the obvious and very real political problems behind a shared, but differentiated responsibility approach: “who takes what responsibilities and how to you manage and regulate them?” The industrialised countries would prefer a ‘per capita’ carbon-rating system, but this would inevitably disadvantage developing countries where higher per capita carbon emissions are directly linked to economic growth and development. “South Africa’s per capita carbon-rating and pollution is high and we are the most vulnerable to greater carbon taxes”. This is chiefly due to our distance from suppliers, our import based market, developing state, poverty and our dependence on fossil fuels.

So where does something like COP leave developing countries like South Africa? “We are supposed to reduce our emissions by 42% by 2025, but through development and growth our emissions are likely to go up.” “South Africa should be receiving money from the Adaptation Fund” says Greyling. Essentially this would help SA (and other developing countries such as Brazil) to curb the amount of money spent on industrial power, and promote investments in greener energy sources. This would keep our ‘carbon budget’ low and avoid political disputes with developed countries that see the developing world as the real emissions threat.

The power versus politics debate comes out to play because most developing countries (including SA) spend the largest amount of their ‘carbon budget’ on producing power. This is a wasteful exercise and needs to be addressed seriously in light of climate change and sustainable practices. Greyling stipulated that “energy production uses 62% of our carbon budget in South Africa.” “This creates internal debates as the other 48% of our carbon budget must then be shared between industry, development, production, mining, agriculture and all other users. How do we share that evenly, and is it even to begin with when power production takes so much?” South Africa’s ‘tried and trusted’ methods of providing base-load power, which we need for industry and growth, are overwhelmingly high-emission fossil fuel sourced.

In many ways, South Africa’s energy problems revolve around poverty, the current inability to invest in the future and the actual costs of our base-load power suppliers… Take the 1 trillion rand estimated for the costs of SA’s proposed nuclear power facilities. One participant pointed out that this amount could be used to build almost 5 million completely sustainable and ‘off-the-grid’ RDP homes. Such an amount could provide housing to more than 20 million people (almost half SA’s total population!)

In essence, developing countries do not have the finances, technology and frequently the knowledge to develop alternative, more sustainable power sources. ‘Quick-fixes’ are needed to help stimulate growth and development, essential in lifting many people from these countries out of poverty. What many want from COP this year then is a plan to end the political stalemate that seems to characterise so these conferences, and structured plans for developing nations to re-think and re-evaluate their power supplies. The Adaptation Fund is vitally important, and calls for developing nations to receive the international funding needed to install greener and safer power will limit the political ‘unfairness’ developed nations feel for their emissions and resolve the emission target issues. New policies should aim to re-instate the Kyoto protocol for developed nations, while detailing realistic and strict emission targets for developing nations. Funding would fast-track and up-scale renewable energy for developing countries to create better and more sustainable power sources, freeing the political issues stigmatising developing nations at present.

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