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Development and Climate Change...Convergent or Divergent? a Look at South Africa's Coal Dependency and Its Green Targets

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Development and Climate Change...Convergent or Divergent? A Look at South Africa's Coal Dependency and its Green Targets

08 September 2010

Diplomatic Pouch

Climate change mitigation is a difficult process for developing nations because immediate and urgent developmental concerns, such as poverty eradication and economic growth, often appear to be at odds with long-term climate concerns.

The short-term challenge lies in balancing developmental and climate change imperatives which, to date, have been treated as mutually exclusive. However this 'either-or' mentality, whereby resources invested in climate change mitigation are perceived as investment forgone in development, can and should be addressed with an innovative economic agenda that identifies and develops market opportunities in climate mitigation and adaptation.

South Africa faces the typical concerns of a developing nation. Poverty alleviation and economic growth are the focus of its development agenda but the country's expertise in dirty energy production is also central to this discussion. Ninety per cent of South Africa's electricity is generated from the combustion of coal resources. The remaining 10% is generated from a mix of nuclear, hydro-electric and renewable energy resources. This configuration, along with the scale and intensity of current operations, has resulted in South Africa's becoming the 13th largest current emitter of anthropogenic gases.

When assessing the country's potential to develop along a lower carbon path, three key factors must be noted: firstly, South Africa's natural abundance in coal gives it a comparative advantage in dirty energy production. Secondly, the most malignant threat to the country's continued economic growth is a capacity constraint wherein the demand for electricity currently outstrips its supply. Lastly, as the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Development maintains, reliable and affordable energy is a necessary condition for halving poverty by 2015.

It is almost redundant to state that the energy sector is critical to South Africa's development, not least because the South African economy relies so heavily on large scale mining. Moreover, the expansion of infrastructure will further beleaguer the national grid. One example of this is the rapid electrification programme, which aims to provide universal access to electricity by 2012. It would, as such, be near impossible for the country to abandon coal-fired power without scale and cost efficient alternatives. Currently, South Africa's coal-fired capacity is being expanded with the re-commissioning of the previously-mothballed Camden, Grootvlei and Komati power stations, which have a combined capacity of 3 800 MW; the construction of the 4 800 MW Medupi power station; and the anticipated construction of the 5 400 MW Kusile plant. It is clear that South Africa will remain a large emitter well into the foreseeable future and this observation holds strong implications for both the country's emission reduction targets and its position in global climate negotiations.

To show its cognisance of the climate threat, South Africa has proposed to cut emissions by 25% before 2020 and by 42% before 2025 from the 'business as usual' level. The most likely reason for such ambitious targets is twofold: strong and decisive action must be taken in order to avert future climate change, the effects of which would be manifested more severely on the African continent. Furthermore, the targets effectively serve as a positive signal in the climate bargaining process. Negotiations have not, however, come to bear fruit; the UN Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen in December 2009 failed to produce legally binding agreements and the root

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