Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Andrew Burger headshot

South Africa Enacts CO2 Emissions Cap as UN Climate Negotiators to Converge on Durban

By Andrew Burger

The South African government will enact an emissions cap and new energy industry regulations in an effort to spur development of alternative, clean and renewable energy and mitigate climate change. The new regulations will penalize heavy polluters that don't comply with greenhouse gas emission limits with fines.

The new plan was adopted by the South African cabinet of President Jacob Zuma Tuesday in advance of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) representatives from around the world converging on the South African coastal city of Durban later this year in what's set to be the most important round of UN efforts to hammer out a successor or alternative to the 1992 Kyoto Protocol since the UNFCCC's 2009 Conference of Parties (COP) gathering in Copenhagen in 2009.

Gearing Up for the UN Climate Change Gathering

Due to be implemented over the next two years, the South African government intends to set emissions reductions goals and limits with the key companies in the nation's electricity, fuels, mining and transport industries, according to a Reuters news report. The intention is that these will enable South Africa to achieve its stated goal of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 34 percent by 2020 and 42 percent by 2025.

South Africa is blessed with a wealth of potential renewable energy resources. It's also a nation of people that generally place a high value on innovation, technical expertise, self-sufficiency and nature. Unfortunately, much of this wealth - in terms of both renewable energy and human resources - is being suppressed.

Shifting, inconsistent government market and industry policies and regulations, along with persistent opposition from its state-owned power monopoly, continue to conspire and hold South Africa back from realizing the tremendous benefits available by genuinely committing itself to enacting strong renewable energy development policies and climate change action plans.

The Coal Monopoly, Government & Renewable Energy

Think "Big Oil" and the fossil industry wield undue influence and power over elected officials in the US? The situation may be even worse in South Africa, where the nation's power and energy sector - and all the investment and jobs that go along with it - is controlled by Eskom, South Africa's state-owned national electric utility. Similarly, the fuels industry is dominated by state-owned Sasol.

Eskom has essentially held the entire nation's electricity supply hostage as it strives to protect its privileged monopoly position by thwarting renewable energy development and climate change action plans before they can even hatch.

The state-owned electric utility holds monopoly power over the entire country's electrical power sector. Virtually entirely reliant on coal as power source, the state-owned utility's ties across the coal power industry value chain, from mining to shipping and distribution, run long and deep.

Successive South African governments have publicly embraced the idea of enacting a policy and regulatory framework that would spur and foster development of alternative, clean and renewable energy markets, industry and commercial enterprises.

With chronically server unemployment and under-employment persistently quoted as being in the neighborhood of 25 percent, you'd think South Africa government representatives would all be on-board and plenty well motivated to see such an initiative through to success. Unfortunately, it hasn't turned out that way.

Lack of Clear, Consistent, Fully Fledged Commitment

South Africa had invested only $125 million in clean energy as of 2009, placing it 17th out of 20 G-20 nations, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s 2010 "G-20 Clean Energy Factbook." That's despite successive South African governments dating back to 2003 proclaiming their commitment to promoting and fostering clean and renewable energy development and climate change mitigation efforts nationwide.

"The clean energy sector may benefit from South Africa’s commitment to cut global warming pollution 34 percent from its current 2020 trajectory," Pew project researchers noted in the report. "Still, clean energy investments in South Africa remain insignificant. There is insufficient reliable data on installed capacity within the country, and it has thus been excluded from this profile."

In 2009, the South African government enacted a renewable energy tariff that's intended to serve as the linchpin of a broader national goal of generating 10,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of renewable electrical power by 2013.

The Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff (REFIT) continues to be challenged and stymied in the courts by opposition and has yet to make a significant impact, however.

The next year, the South African government enacted the "Integrated Resource Plan of 2010," thereby setting a goal of producing 17.8 GW of electricity from renewable sources by 2030. That amounts to less than 10 percent of projected 2030 national electricity demand production, a decidedly unambitious goal for a nation that has tremendous potential across the clean energy landscape, be it wind, solar, marine, biogas, waste-to-energy, or just about any other clean, renewable resource.

According to Reegle's Clean Energy Information online database service South Africa's government has established the following renewable energy targets:

* Solar Photovoltaic: 14% of electricity supply by 2050.
* Solar Thermal Electric: 43TWh (terawatt-hours) by 2030.
* Wind Energy: between ‘modest’ to ‘abundant’ prospects.
* Hydropower: 4700 MW.
* Biomass: In the longer term, around 9 to 16% of energy demand.
* Landfill gas: 7.2 to 10.8 TWh of electricity generation by 2040.
* Waves and other categories: 33 TWh per year by 2050.

Upcoming IPCC Climate Change Conference in Durban

Enacting this latest initiative so near its hosting of the 17th UNFCCC Conference of Parties climate change conference leaves the South African government open to criticism of the worst kind of political opportunism, of playing international politics with climate change and renewable energy policy for its own short-term gains.

Unjust as that may be, what's needed are clear, consistent, well thought through and effective public-private process and policies that address greenhouse gas emissions and stimulate investment in clean and renewable energy markets, industries and businesses. That would help the people of South Africa, and well beyond, much more than opportunistic, hastily conceived and passed measures that lack staying power, wind up doing little and lead nowhere.

To be fair, it doesn't seem there are many places in the world today where you find a surplus of
honest, profound, long-term thinkers and planners in the legislative or executive ranks. There also seems to be a decided lack of public representatives who don't equate national interest with self-interest and who refuse to sacrifice national interest for personal gain and political power. Perhaps it's always been so, but the degree to which it seems to characterize the political process and system here in the US today seems extreme.

All this said, there's always tomorrow, or so we like to tell ourselves and others, or as the owner of a Greek diner I once frequented put it, "Better days are coming."

Andrew Burger headshot

An experienced, independent journalist, editor and researcher, Andrew has crisscrossed the globe while reporting on sustainability, corporate social responsibility, social and environmental entrepreneurship, renewable energy, energy efficiency and clean technology. He studied geology at CU, Boulder, has an MBA in finance from Pace University, and completed a certificate program in international governance for biodiversity at UN University in Japan.

Read more stories by Andrew Burger