South Africa’s Empty Promise

Posted on 14 December 2009 by editor

Sisiwe Khanyile from South African group Groundwork. Credit: Servaas van den Bosch/IPS

Sisiwe Khanyile from South African group Groundwork. Credit: Servaas van den Bosch/IPS

By Servaas van den Bosch

COPENHAGUE (IPS/TerraViva) Powerhouse South Africa last week promised a reduction of growth in emissions, making it the momentary star of the negotiations. But the plan is ‘an absolute non-starter’, say environmental groups, as power utility Eskom fires up more fossil plants with five billion dollars of World Bank funding.

In a well-timed move, South Africa, responsible for half of the continent’s greenhouse gas emissions, announced a reduction of CO2 emission growth – down 34 percent from business as usual in 2020 and 42 percent by 2025. The announcement, released the day before the start of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, predicts a decline in emissions in 2035.

“As such, South Africa, being a responsible global citizen and in line with its obligations under article 4.1 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) acknowledges its responsibilities to undertake national action that will contribute to the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” read a statement form the President’s office.

The responsible global citizen’s move came with strings attached though.

“It is not a pledge,” South Africa’s top negotiator Joanne Yawitch told TerraViva. “The reduction depends on whether developed countries put a fair and equitable deal on the table in Copenhagen, particularly where it comes to financial support for mitigation measures.”

According to Yawitch the savings are calculated on the basis of clean technology schemes to mitigate emissions. “We want to put up wind farms and relieve the transport sector with the Rea Vaya (isiZulu slang for ‘we are going’) bus rapid transport system. We plan to fit a million solar geysers in households,” she said.

“But 12 months into the program only 800 were installed,” commented Ferrial Adam of Earthlife Africa at a press conference in Copenhagen a week later. “They have announced this but there is no plan of action, only a lot of voluntary measures that go nowhere. The roll-out of renewable energy is just so slow.”

What makes environmentalists livid is that Eskom, responsible for 40 percent of the country’s emissions has just secured a $3.7 billion loan from the World Bank for fossil fuel-based power generation and is negotiating to get this figure increased to $5 billion.

Using the World Bank money as leverage Eskom, has already secured $2.5 billion from the African Development Bank in a separate deal.

The loans are destined for the Kusile and Medupi power plants being constructed in the rural provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga. When completed eight years from now, these will become the world’s third and fourth largest coal-fired plants, say the campaigners.

“This deal with the World Bank locks South Africa into a position where it will continue its emissions path,” said Adam.

“The $5 billion loan is the largest the World Bank has ever given to any African country,” said Sisiwe Khanyile from South African environmental justice group Groundwork.

“It’s also more than double of what the World Bank has globally allocated for renewable energy funding,” she argues. “This raises the question of how serious South Africa really is with moving forward on green technology.”

Of South Africa’s generating capacity of 44,000 megawatts, some 37,000 megawatts is delivered by coal fired plants. Only around 2,000 megawatts comes from renewable energy sources. Just two days after South Africa’s announcement to start slowing emissions growth Eskom signed a 60 million tonne coal supply deal with mining group Xstrata.

“The World Bank doesn’t live by its own rules said Nnimmo Bassey of the Friends of The Earth International. “It finances large-scale unsustainable power generation in an age when such projects should not even be considered. Leave oil in the soil and coal in the hole!”

The claim that the nation’s power shortage is impeding development for the poor is a misrepresentation argue the environmentalists. “After they have used their free basic 50 kilowatt allowance, the poor pay a rate that’s three times higher than the industry pays, which is by far the largest consumer of power in South Africa,” explains Khanyile.

She accuses the World Bank of including a “renewable energy fig leaf” in the deal to the amount in the form of $260 million for wind and concentrated solar power. “However there is no convincing evidence that Eskom is leaning towards renewables. At best Eskom’s plans show a renewable accounting for only two percent of the generating capacity by 2020.”

Khanyile and her colleagues travelled to Copenhagen to put pressure on their delegation to accept a green and fair deal for Africa. While Eskom and petrol giant Engen (which is not even a South African company) were invited to join the delegation, no members of civil society was taken aboard.

The NGOs are concerned South Africa’s positioning will estrange it from the Africa Group of negotiators in Copenhagen.

“Already Sudan chided South Africa for it unilateral offer, accusing it to cause division in the group. Unfortunately they later retracted this statement,” said Adam. “There are also indications that South Africa is pressuring the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to not upset the negotiations by insisting on a maximum 1.5 degree rise in global temperature.”

And so a closer look at the gleaming promise of one of the mid-ranking players in climate negotiations uncovers a disturbing emptiness.

“They know very well that their promise of emission reductions is not legally binding,” said Adam. “It seems like South Africa just want to shine in the negotiations and then continue with business as usual.”

With five days left to seal a deal, real commitments from South Africa and its fellow BASIC countries are still in short supply. (END/2009)

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