What are the implications for South Africa of the Paris Agreement on climate change?

By Harald Winkler

Originally published on the Energy Research Centre (ERC) website.

The Paris Agreement is characterised by much broader participation than the Kyoto Protocol. Much more will be required for South Africa, together with all other countries, in terms of regularly communicating contributions. These contributions will be ‘nationally determined’, but subject to strong international review at the individual and collective level. This applies across mitigation, adaptation and support, in slightly different ways.

On mitigation, the Paris Agreement has individual mitigation obligations. The nationally determined mitigation contributions (NMDCs) are obligations of conduct. South Africa shall prepare and communicate successive NDMCs and there is obliged to pursue domestic measures to achieve objectives of NDMC (Article 4.2). The objective of the mitigation part of the INDC submitted prior to Paris was built around the ‘peak, plateau and decline’ (PPD) emissions trajectory range, so we will have to show what measures – carbon tax, carbon budgets, low-emissions electricity plan, renewable programme, transport policies and others – we will pursue in order to achieve PPD.

This information will be reported and reviewed regularly, meaning every two and five years. South Africa submitted its first biennial update report in 2014, and will submit another in 2016; from 2020, these will become biennial communications. The scope will be broader, including adaptation optionally and mandatorily support received. On mitigation, national inventory reports are required every two years, as well as tracking progress in implementing and achieving its NDMC. Every five years, information on adaptation, mitigation and support will be reviewed collectively, in a ‘global stock-take’. We then have to take into account what all countries are doing together – including on finance – as we nationally set our next contribution.

Successive NDMCs will have information specified, and some design features are subject to further negotiation. In other words, the information around NDMCs may become more precise over time. There is a requirement of ‘progression’, that SA’s next NDMC goes beyond its current one, and reflects our highest level of ambition.

One means of increasing ambition will be to look beyond what national governments can do on their own. Paris pointed in the decision (para 134-137) to action by ‘non-Party stakeholders’, formally recognizing that other actors have much to offer. Equally important are the more action- and implementation-focused activities increasingly happening in the UNFCCC, be they a Solar Coalition or commitments by cities to 100% renewable energy. At home, this should mean that the participatory approach to adaptation and mitigation should be taken further. Cities are at the front-lines of adaptation and mitigation, businesses have much to contribute, and civil society makes a crucial contribution.

Paris sent clear policy signals for more renewable energy and (implicitly) less use of fossil fuels. While much of the focus on renewables was with India, China and Brazil, a preambular paragraph acknowledges the importance of universal access to sustainable energy, including “in particular in Africa, through the enhanced deployment of renewable energy”. With SA’s connections to the other BASIC countries, our own REI4P and support for an African Renewable Energy Initiative from African heads of state and partner countries, the prospects of SA playing a key role in the expansion of renewables on the continent seem bright.

We will only fully appreciate what the Paris Agreement means for SA in the coming months and years. But already we know enough to have a good idea that Paris, while far from perfect, marked an important and positive change towards climate action.

South Africa thus finds itself in a different world from the one where Annex I had commitments, and non-Annex I Parties had none. The Paris Agreement moves decisively beyond these categories. That means SA will have to re-double its efforts to implement its national climate policy, and to make contributions to the global efforts set out under the Paris Agreement.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the ACDI, or any other entity affiliated with the ACDI.