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Climate Change: What’s Government doing?

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Most countries are struggling to reach their climate goals. South Africa is by no means in the green yet, but from a policy perspective, we deserve a pat on the back.

Climate change has dealt South Africa a double whammy. In fact, a threefold blow. Firstly we have a coal-dependent economy that makes us one of the largest polluters globally.
Secondly, our economy is dependent on the export of commodities such as platinum, gold and iron. As countries and international companies transition to net zero or net neutral, these commodities could lose market share, threatening South Africa’s ability to service national debt and import the necessary goods and services.
Thirdly, in South Africa, almost 20% of the population live in extreme poverty. Climate change will disproportionately affect those living in poverty and is already doing so.
Then there’s also the physical risks such as heat waves, severe flooding and droughts. South Africa is currently ranked 95 out of 182 countries assessed under the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index, which ranks countries according to their vulnerability to climate change and their preparedness to enhance resilience.
It’s crucial that South Africa views these climate challenges as an opportunity to come up with innovative solutions to keep our resources relevant in a net-zero trade environment and to establish new globally sought-after technologies.
Since signing the Paris Agreement in 2015 the government has been hard at work to address the social and economic impacts of climate change and to play its role in global efforts to stabilise and reduce GHG emissions.

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 195 parties at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, on 12 December 2015. It came into force on 4 November 2016.

Clear targets are set
Under the Paris Agreement, countries are required to establish a climate action plan to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts, also called a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).
South Africa’s net GHG emissions in CO2 equivalent were estimated at 442 million tonnes (Mt) in 2020. In October 2021, the government reviewed its initial targets and set more ambitious climate targets (see graph) in an updated NDC.

Source: UNFCCC

The updated NDC also includes our first adaptation component (A-NDC), which will be refined over time. The A-NDC sets out adaptation measures for the country around how we’re aiming to achieve those adaptation goals. The updated A-NDC envisions that Government will build climate resilience by prioritising vulnerable systems such as water systems, biodiversity and agriculture, health and human settlements.
To achieve the targets, climate financing is required, and consequently the updated NDC has identified the need for National Treasury, the South African Reserve Bank, financial sector regulators and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment to work collaboratively to achieve said goals.

The polluter pays
Carbon tax is another important, and often heavily debated, policy lever the government has put in place to help achieve the NDC. The Carbon Tax Act was passed in 2019 and is based on the “polluter pays” principle, shifting the responsibility back to the emitting entity. Carbon tax was set at a low base rate of R120 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) emissions to give companies enough time to prepare and ease into the system. From 2026, Government is expected to raise the carbon price sharply every year thereafter.

A just transition aims to achieve a quality life for all South Africans, in the context of increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate, fostering climate resilience, and reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in line with best available science.
– PCC, 2022

Time to act
In October 2023, the National Assembly passed the Climate Change Bill. Upon presidential approval, it will become the country’s inaugural Climate Change Act, rendering the NDC legally binding and enforceable. It will force all provinces and municipalities to align their policies and laws with the government’s climate change response. 

The overseers
In 2020 the multi-stakeholder body, the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), was formed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to oversee South Africa’s transition to a low-emissions and climate-resilient economy in a fair and equitable manner. The Commission is also responsible for monitoring and evaluating progress towards our mitigation and adaptation goals. Key items on which the Commission has progressed since its establishment are the development of South Africa’s Just Transition Framework and South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Investment Plan, both of which have been received with mixed reactions from various stakeholder groupings. 

Climate justice for all
One of the first tasks of the PCC was to design a just transition framework for South Africa. Climate change exacerbates South Africa’s triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. The PCC engaged with various communities across the country, identifying the many hardships and inequalities they are facing. 

From a glass-half-full perspective, the climate challenge offers the opportunity to build a better South Africa for all: our citizens, the environment and the planet. The Just Transition Framework sets out a pathway on how this can be achieved. 

South Africa’s climate action strategy is commendable and on par with that of its peers such as Brazil and Australia, but the targets don’t yet fully align with the Paris Agreement. 

However, the government has demonstrated its commitment to addressing our contribution to global emissions and the vulnerabilities South Africa faces.

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