Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in South Africa: Copenhagen Climate Treaty Aftica

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A History of (Some) Change

South Africa has been attempting to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions for a long time. A study released as long ago as October of 2002 estimated that the efforts of this country, along with other developing countries like Brazil, India and China, have reduced emissions growth by 288 million tons of carbon a year1. Not all that much compared to the big picture, but still, a decent start.

That being said, South Africa has had a poor track record on the whole. This country, along with many others in the region, have been in the throes of a power crisis2 this last decade; finding blackouts to be quite common, with simply not enough power to supply the rather excessive needs of its people. This results in diesel-run generator use by a number of businesses and civilians, or coal for heating, both of which is even less efficient than the coal-burning power plants the region depends on.

In response, the government called for a 15% reduction in energy use, which was matched by somewhere between 1.5%-3%, a mere fraction. Very few businesses have made changes to reduce their energy use. Attempts at creating public transportation systems such as the Gautrain have largely only appealed to the wealthy due to their high rates, and not the rest of the population.

At present, South Africa is estimated to be responsible for 3% of the total greenhouse gas emissions.

Copenhagen Climate Talks

While the recent Copenhagen deal has been largely regarded as a failure by the international community, arguably by the efforts of China3, it has delivered some amount of good to developing countries such as South Africa. The current President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, went to participate in the talks himself, and delivered a promising address explaining his goal of carbon emission reduction4.

A total of $30 billion dollars of aid has been promised to these countries to help them reduce carbon emissions over the next three years, and a total of $100 billion until 2020. Some of this money will go to South Africa, though an exact amount has not been set.

LTMS: Long Term Mitigation Scenario

The government has put together a task force called the LTMS, or Long-term Mitigation Scenario, supported by the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its goal is to examine various greenhouse gas reduction scenarios for South Africa. It has a focus not so much on what South Africa should do, but what it can do.

To this end, it examines many different mitigation strategies, from low-cost yet high-yield strategies, high-cost yet low-yield, no-cost, and even those that would result in a net profit for those involved. The study has thus far identified that 33% emission reductions could be made simply by adapting those low- and no-cost strategies! This holds incredible promise.

The Future of Greenhouse Gas or Carbon Emission Reduction

The question, however, is whether South Africa will pick up on it.

Currently, the country is debating whether to put a “carbon tax” into place, as well as proposals to adapt taxes on energy generated from non-renewable resources. This would encourage businesses to adapt measures that are low-cost compared to the tax. This has been countered by industry requests to lower their income tax, so that they do not become unprofitable. Subsidies for energy-efficient technologies, and removal of tariffs from imported green technologies, are also being considered.

The primary issue with creating real reductions in carbon emissions is not so much what the government proposes—the Cabinet has made all sorts of calls to “decarbonize” South Africa. It’s a matter of the attitude amongst the people with regards to energy usage. Gas-guzzling SUVs are regarded as a power symbol—much the same way they are in the rest of the world.

One of the most difficult problems to overcome is South Africa’s complete dependence on cheap coal-based power. South Africa has one of the lowest electricity rates in the world, which citizens have been abusing to the extent of being labeled as also one of the most energy inefficient countries in the world. African countries in general are known for their sunny and windy conditions, presenting a huge potential for development of renewable energy sources. There have also been innovative attempts to harness methane created by landfills5, which although not emission-free, is still a step in the right direction.

If a lot of this sounds familiar, it should. If nothing else, global conferences such as Copenhagen has brought about awareness that all countries face the same difficulties in attempting to reduce their carbon emissions.