By Alex Lenferna

South Africa hosts the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) — in Durban, starting today. But what about South Africa’s own response to climate change, and how coherent and meaningful is our response, really?

Firstly, let’s look at South Africa’s emissions reduction commitment from COP 15, which it is still planning on sticking to. South Africa agreed to reduce their emissions by 34% by 2020 and 43% by 2025 of the business as usual scenario. Given that many countries aren’t willing to sign on to legally binding emission-reduction targets, this might seem like a valiant move, but considered from another light it is not.

As Earthlife Africa has argued, South Africa’s emission-reduction targets do not represent their fair share of the common but differentiated responsibility of the global community. We need to bear in mind that South Africa is one of the worst per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the globe — in fact, what many don’t realise is that per capita we are worse than China, the supposed modern-day villains of climate change.

Given our heavily polluting role, which is created by being more than 90% reliant on fossil fuels for energy, if South Africa is to play its fair part in global climate negotiations it is going to need to do significantly more to reduce its emissions.

In fact Earthlife Africa argues that if South Africa wants to play its part in keeping global temperatures below 2’C it will have to peak emissions at 2011 and decline from there.

But isn’t South Africa making progress on renewable energies and a low carbon economy? Numerous policy documents and agreements such as the green economy accord and national climate change response white paper talk the talk, but talk is cheap. The lone wind turbine at Coega, South Africa’s only industrial development zone, along with the development of the Kusile and Medupi coal power stations suggest a different story.

There might be cause for celebration, however, as Eskom (South Africa’s power supplier) signed a R1.9 billion loan from the World Bank in order to finance South Africa’s largest wind and energy projects. This is good news indeed, apart from the debt, but needs to be kept in perspective with the loan that South Africa took out last year to fund mostly fossil fuel. The amount was not R1.9 billion but about R28 billion. It is quite clear, unfortunately, that South Africa is more invested in fossil fuels than not.

It might just be me, but South Africa’s response to climate change isn’t looking that great. But there might be one redeeming aspect to the South African response: its proposed carbon tax. You might remember Australia’s controversial struggle to introduce a carbon tax. Well, South Africa also wants to introduce a carbon tax, but ours might be slightly different.

South Africa’s proposed carbon tax is set to act as just another tax on South Africans while, some argue, inadequately addressing issues of climate change — the very problem it was designed to address. This is because the revenue generated will not be earmarked to tackle issues of climate change rather they will simply flow into government coffers. Because of this, many claim that the tax is quite unlikely to result in any significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, given South African government’s propensity to misuse funds it seems unlikely then that much of this money will find its way to tackling issues of climate change. Considering that the tax could bring in a possible R82.5 billion each year this does not seem like a loss we can write off either.

Of course the money raised from the carbon tax will not come from just anywhere, nor will it grow on trees. If passed it will cost our carbon-intensive power producers billions of rands — a cost that will most likely be passed onto the taxpayer. Of course it is important that we realise that this is part of the process of internalising the ecological costs of the power we create, but it is important to consider the effects that this will have on the broader community, especially the poorest in our country, who as it is, cannot really afford electricity, if they have access at all.

Given these issues, should we scrap the carbon tax, and just allow business to carry on as usual? I think not, for it is clear that South Africa needs to do something to tackle climate change. What a group of students from across the Eastern Cape proposed to Parliament, and is slowly gaining support for outside of Parliament, is that the country needs to rethink the way carbon tax works.

The student organisation, the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum (SEACC SF), is respectfully demanding that South African government earmarks the funds garnered from the carbon tax to deal specifically with issues of climate change adaptation and mitigation, and in doing so enable South Africa’s transition towards a lower carbon economy and bolster the resilience of South African communities vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The carbon tax can be a lever to transition South Africa’s economy to a green economy not just a hindrance to economic growth. Furthermore because the tax will put increased financial pressure on the poor through increased electricity costs, SEACC SF is respectfully demanding that a portion of the funds is also earmarked to offset regressive impacts on the poor. Parliament is yet to respond to SEACC SF’s call, but perhaps there is hope for the tax yet.

In sum, South Africa’s approach to climate change isn’t looking great, and there is certainly much work that needs to be done. Given South Africa’s pivotal role as hosts and chair of COP 17, as well as our sometimes leading role in Africa and the developing world and our carbon-intense economy, this is work that needs to be done not only for ourselves, but in order to facilitate progress in global climate negotiations.

South Africa in many ways is like a microcosm of the global climate scene. We have a heavily divided country between rich and poor, like the global north and south. The rich have benefited and are benefiting from a carbon-intensive indulgent life, while the poor see hardly any of the benefits of the carbon intense economy.

Adding to this, if drastic change in South African society and global negotiations don’t take place soon, the negative effects of climate change will be visited upon the poor, while the rich hide behind their unequal and often unjustly accumulated resources.

Given these parallels and South Africa’s weak response to climate change, it will be interesting to see how it navigates its way around the tricky terrain of COP 17.

Alex Lenferna is the lead tracker of the South African government during COP 17 under, as well as chairperson of the South East African Climate Consortium Student Forum ( Follow Alex as he tracks South Africa’s progress within COP 17 on Twitter (@al_lenferna), Facebook/Alex Lenferna or


  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]


Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members...

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