Developing Country Action on Global Warming: Speech of South African Minister at NRDC event

I just wrapped up an event that NRDC co-hosted with Climate Change Capital on Emerging Strategies for International Climate & Investment Policy on Capital Hill. The event was aimed at beginning a serious discussion about how to structure international incentives to encourage greater emissions reductions in developing countries in the post-2012 agreement in Copenhagen (Dec. 2009).

We had the pleasure of having Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk of the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism provide a keynote address. He is a powerful leader amongst developing countries and South Africa is staking out a leadership role in battling global warming. In July 2008, South Africa announced a Cabinet-level commitment to have their global warming pollution peak, plateau, and decline.

So at this important junction as President-elect Obama is on the cusp of working to restore America's global leadership on global warming and the international negotiations are moving into high-gear in the lead-in to Copenhagen, we had a first hand account from Minister van Schwalkwyk on the role of developing countries in addressing this global challenge. He also pointed out the need for the US to show leadership by capping its global warming pollution which is a key building block of getting a strong international agreement (I won't discuss these points here as I'll have further posts on the whole issue of developed country targets).

And, we weren't disappointed as he gave a powerful talk on key elements of this challenge with some insights that are worth highlighting (the whole speech is available here and worth a read, but I've included some key points).

Minister van Schalkwyk had this to say about the new dynamic that can emerge in the international negotiations:

"We look forward to the unlocking of a new dynamic in international climate negotiations as the US assumes an international leadership role that is underpinned by ambitious domestic action and solidarity with developing countries."

He highlighted the emissions trend in South Africa and the implications:

"If we continue with a business as usual growth path, our emissions will almost quadruple...by 2050. Continuing along this path will be a high risk approach. We are clear that it would be socially, economically, politically and environmentally unsustainable. We cannot continue to grow without a carbon constraint."

But South Africa has committed to reverse this trend:

"the South African Government has committed to our emissions peaking between 2020 and 2025, then stabilising for a decade, before declining in absolute terms towards mid-century" [emphasis added].

"Government has also made clear its intent to put an escalating price on carbon, be that through market mechanisms, a carbon tax, or a combination of these instruments."

These efforts will help to reduce the rate of growth of their emissions, but with assistance from developed countries they could go further:

"we are putting our best efforts into making a fair contribution to this global challenge -- but the extent to which South Africa will be able to realise this ambitious vision will depend on the support that the international community gives through finance, technology transfer and the building of human and institutional capacity."

This figure shows the specific details on this framework based on their analysis of the various paths (with roughly the black line showing their current path, the orange line showing what they could do at low cost, and the green and blue lines what they could do with assistance).

South African Emissions Trajectory

Reaching an international agreement in Copenhagen:

"...we are as determined as ever to reach an ambitious agreement in Copenhagen...In particular, we need clear signals on mid-term targets from all developed countries, including the USA, as well as credible proposals on financing and technology in support of developing countries."

And, here are the key elements of that agreement related to the emissions reduction pieces (he had points on the adaptation piece but I won't cover them here):

"An equitable burden-sharing paradigm requires that developed countries take leadership by committing to absolute and legally-binding emission reductions, whilst developing countries take meaningful actions, supported by effective means of implementation, to ensure a substantial deviation from business-as-usual."

With the right set of incentives placed on the table from developed countries there will be a willingness on the part of developing countries to put serious proposals forward on their emissions reduction actions:

"I am quite certain that binding support to developing countries could trigger matching mitigation commitments to act. A serious discussion will therefore be needed in the US on scaling up support for climate change action - including what share the US is willing to devote to support action in developing countries."

Minister van Schalkwyk's speech continues to reiterate the increased willingness of developing countries to take action to reduce their emissions. It highlights the framework that will be (in my view) the heart of the agreement in Copenhagen...essentially saying we will undertake some action to reduce our emissions on our own and we'll be able to go further with a set of properly designed incentives.

There is a window of opportunity to get a strong international agreement. But it will require a strong commitment from the US to cap its own global warming pollution and then make a serious effort to negotiate with other countries.


Jake Schmidt is the International Climate Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council where he helps to develop the post-2012 international response to climate change (for more information see his blog).

South Africa, UNFCCC