South Africa sees binding climate change policy in three years

South Africa expects to put in place a binding climate change policy within three years to cap emissions by 2020-25, the environment minister said at the launch of a climate summit on Tuesday.
Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk said lack of action could lead emissions in South Africa, the continent’s largest emitter, to quadruple by 2050.
“If we continue to grow without a carbon constraint, we face the threat of border tax adjustments or trade sanctions from key trading partners and the destruction of thousands of jobs in the high emitting trade exposed sectors,” he said.
Reuters adds that he says government is finalising a regulatory, fiscal and legislative framework that would make tracking and reporting of emissions mandatory. There would also be penalties if companies did not comply with emission reduction targets.
About half of total emissions come from state-owned utility Eskom, which provides 95% of the country’s electricity, out of which about 90% stem from coal. The other big culprit is petrochemicals group Sasol, whose Secunda coal-to-liquids (CTL) plant is the biggest single emitter of CO2 on the planet according to environmentalists.
South Africa has often been commended for being most active among developing countries in fighting climate change, but environmentalists say while the government has set ambitious targets it has been slow in executing them.
Ferrial Adam, a researcher for think-tank Earthlife, said both Sasol, which is building a new 80 000 barrels-per-day CTL plant, and Eskom, which invests in restarting mothballed coal-fired stations to ease a chronic power shortage, were only making things worse. 
She also dismissed Sasol’s application to the United Nations to produce and sell carbon credits, which could earn the company an estimated R1.1 billion rand annually.
“It allows people to continue polluting; the government has to put pressure and hold these companies accountable,” she said.
President Kgalema Motlanthe said it was the poor who would bear the brunt of climate change impact and stressed, along with unions, that the climate challenge was also about combating poverty, sustainable development and energy supply.
South Africa plans to generate some 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Abundant in sunlight and wind, renewables are an effective and cheaper alternative for the country, industry players say.
But the lack of investor-friendly policies and subsidies and the need to boost power generation after the national grid nearly collapsed last year have made progress slow, they say.
Van Schalkwyk also said SA believes an agreement on emission curbs at the climate talks in Copenhagen is still possible, but only if developed countries do their fair share and follow up on their commitments.
Nearly 200 nations will meet at the end of the year to try to seal a broader agreement to replace Kyoto and bind big developing nations and the United States to emissions curbs.
Van Schalkwyk said the countries should not yet discount a possible deal, but push for inclusive and ambitious targets instead.
Analysts have suggested the new deal could be at risk because poorer nations will not commit to emissions curbs unless rich countries do much more to rein in carbon pollution and pay for adaptation and the transfer of clean-energy technology.
“(As) developing countries, we want an agreement in Copenhagen; we want the agreement to be legally binding, we want decisions on finance and technology transfer to be binding — I believe it is still within our reach,” he said.
Van Schalkwyk said he was encouraged by signals coming from the Obama administration, but said its zero emissions reduction target to 1990 levels by 2020 was not acceptable.
“We cannot accept anything that suggests that, because the United States have done so little for so long, we must allow them to do less than required by science in future,” he said.
Van Schalkwyk said the trust gap between developed and developing nations had widened during the U.N. climate talks in Poland in December, but some progress has been made since.  “Many developed countries still owe us their proposals for midterm targets — Japan, Canada, Russia, the United States — and Australia came with a very uninspiring proposal,” he said.
“The draft communique from the European Union indicates progress at least from the EU, but many other developed countries must still come to the table,” he said.
A fund to help poor countries cope with global warming was lunched at the talks in Poland, to help developing countries adapt to floods, mudslides, droughts and rising seas, but has been touted as being tiny compared to what needs to be done.
UN projections are that poor nations will need tens of billions of dollars a year by 2030 to cope with climate change.
Van Schalwyk said international assistance is needed to reduce emissions by a substantial amount.
“On our own, with the decisions in place now, we could probably deviate 10 percent from business as usual in our emissions trajectory … we need international support to push it up to 30-35 percent, that’s what is lacking,” he said.
Van Schalkwyk was speaking at the launch of South Africa’s second climate change summit, due to continue until March 6.