Climate Change

Crunch time for SA and region in Paris

COP 21 facing climate crunch
COP 21.jpg

With COP 21 barely a week away, the international model for meeting the challenges of climate change is about to be tested thoroughly, throughout the world and particularly in southern Africa.

The United Nation’s Conference of the Parties, or COP 21, due to start on 30 November in Paris, comes against the backdrop of the first nine months of 2015 having been the warmest such period on record across the world’s land and ocean surfaces. The effect of this and of the extreme weather conditions following in its wake is set to be acutely experienced in southern Africa.

With South Africa already in the grip of a heatwave and of the worst drought in more than two decades, the country’s ability to deal with such climate conditions is already coming under strain.

The ability of South Africa, as the largest economy and most developed nation in the region, to champion the interest of the region and of the continent will also be put to the test in Paris.

The respected international magazine Newsweek recently wrote: “The Zambezi River Basin, which feeds Victoria Falls (the Earth’s largest waterfall), is the river valley in Africa most vulnerable to global warming.”

We also recently reported on the potential disaster threatening the largest man-made lake, Kariba, on the Zambezi.

Newsweek concluded: “Experts anticipate the area will soon see a significant temperature rise, reduced water flow and occasional monsoon-like storms, despite less rainfall generally. The 32 million people living near the riverbanks will face shortages of drinking water and floods that threaten to wash away their homes and crops.

“And yet Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and other basin countries are among the least capable of adapting to climate change, according to the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index.

“Without much industrial pollution to speak of, they also have had very little to do with the greenhouse gas emissions that caused today’s climate crisis. In other words, some parts of the world most vulnerable to climate change are also the ones least responsible for it – and the least likely to be able to afford to protect themselves.”

For South Africa, itself going through a climate and global economic downturn- induced crisis, it also has implications for social stability because of potentially large migrations of people under stress from its neighbours southwards. With it comes, for one, the prospect of renewed xenophobic tensions in the country.

In fact, southern Africa could become a microcosm of global conditions predicted by many experts, unless the international community comes to grips with the implications of a warming planet. It also presents a present-day example of some of the dilemmas involved in dealing with climate change globally.

French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, who is hosting the COP meeting, recently said that the UN’s climate science panel has warned of an average temperature rise of “four, five, six degrees, if we do not act extremely quickly.

“This would have catastrophic consequences because there would be drought ... and colossal migration problems, including problems of war and peace.”

Developing vs developed world

It is against this background that South Africa, and much of the rest of the developing world, in the run-up to the Paris conference have been accusing rich, developed countries of not shouldering their fair share of the responsibility for both the mitigation of, and the cost of adaption to, climate change.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told a recent “climate change breakfast” that a Civil Society Equity Review of COP nations’ submissions of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) concluded that all major developed countries fell short of their “fair share” in both domestic emission reduction and international finance.

And a UN synthesis of all INDCs submitted had concluded that the sum of all emission reduction pledges was likely to put the world on track to an average 3 °C temperature increase – exceeding the targeted global threshold.

In the African context, this implied a 4 °C to 6 °C temperature rise in many countries, she said.

While there are strong doubts that COP 21 will be able to deliver an internationally legally binding deal, the meeting in Paris is shaping up to be a titanic diplomatic and political battle – illustrated by the African bloc’s rejection of the draft climate plan and by Molewa describing it as a form of apartheid against developing nations.

The core of the arguments of developing nations are that the developed nations have built their riches on the back of the abundance of cheap fossil fuels and are still major emitters of so-called greenhouse gases. At the same time many developing nations will bear the brunt of the negative fallout of global warming.

Other side of the coin                                                                        

The other side of the coin is that most developed nations are also facing economic challenges in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the resultant economic downturn. For them, too, national interest and domestic pressures are of paramount importance.

For example, a recent national survey in the US has found while a large majority of Americans believe there is strong evidence for global warming, they refused to link it to human activity. Researchers at Yale University estimate that 48% of Americans refuse to pin blame on their own behaviour.

And, as the Newsweek article quoted above pointed out, wealthy countries have already contributed billions of dollars to a fund designed to rescue the poorest countries from the effects of climate change.

“It’s like a complicated, politically charged Kickstarter campaign in which the reward is saving the planet. In that sense, it’s already the biggest crowdfunding effort of all time,” the magazine wrote.

The Green Climate Fund already wields more than $10 billion in promised funding – with $3 billion coming from the US, $1.3 billion from Japan and $1.5 billion from the United Kingdom.

Developed countries, however, argue that large emerging economies like China and India should also contribute more to this cause.

Illustrating how national strategic consideration and diplomatic manoeuvring impact on the issue, China recently announced that it was pledging $3.1 billion to a separate fund, part of which will help developing countries build capacity to receive GCF money.

Doing it this way China retains control over where it believes the spending will best serve its own strategic and economic interests.

Challenge to developing word

Developing countries, if they want to benefit fully from the funds available, face a challenge to convince those controlling the funds that the money will be spent efficiently on the intended purposes.

Spending on projects in Africa and elsewhere has indeed started, and as the Newsweek article, headlined ‘Green Climate Fund Must Fight Corruption Before It Can Beat Global Warming’ revealed, it has delivered some excellent results in terms of adaption in countries like Ghana and Kenya.

But it also reported that “other projects demonstrate just how creatively people can misuse public funds,” citing an example of a $3.1 billion project in Bangladesh, where money was misspent to serve narrow political interests.


As Katherine Lake of the University of Melbourne puts it in an article on The Conversation website: it is clear that “ultimately, political will and state action are what makes an international deal effective (more than just a legal framework), so the outcome in Paris should provide a basic framework that will support countries to scale up the emission reductions that they are already making, so that we can achieve the 2 ℃ goal as efficiently as possible”.

by Piet Coetzer

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