Carbon-based living

25 February 2015

Professor Harald Winkler, director of UCT's Energy Research Centre, shares some insights into South Africa's policies on carbon emissions and where we should be headed.

Could you give us an outline of South Africa's key CO2 reduction policies?

South Africa's national climate policy contains a trajectory for greenhouse gas emissions, called 'peak, plateau and decline' (PPD). That is a benchmark against which all mitigation actions (CO2 reduction policies) should be assessed. It is clear that a range of key actions, policies and measures will be needed. Some key ones include a carbon tax, proposed by Treasury. The Department of Environmental Affairs is working on carbon budgets for companies, and allocating PPD to sectors. Work in each sector is important, so the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010 and its update) includes a greater share of zero-emissions technologies – and a shift away from coal. The renewable energy procurement programme by the Department of Energy is another example. Using energy more efficiently is crucial.

Are our policies an adequate response to the problem of warming, or at least to mitigating its effects on livelihoods?

The challenge for South Africa is to move from policy and plans to implementation. The question is how to achieve PPD. More actions than those listed will be needed. The response is not adequate, at least in some analyses, if we measure it as a fair contribution to keeping temperature increase below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That implies a value judgement – what is fair? We may argue that we need 16-20 gigatonnes of CO2e from now until 2050 – researchers from China and India have done calculations that add up emissions per capita – and then SA would get a smaller share.

World leaders have seemingly acknowledged the urgent need to tackle excessive carbon emissions at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos; what would the ideal short- to mid-term policy response to the challenge be?

Well, climate change is a long-term problem that requires urgent action. In the next ten to fifteen years, we need to make sure that we do not lock ourselves into the systems and infrastructure that have caused the problem. That means moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels; and globally, also reducing deforestation. That means changing our behaviour, and how we live. We all use fossil fuels to drive, fly, cook and heat our homes; and we buy the products of industries that use coal, oil and gas. If demand were reduced, or we demanded different products, that would make an important shift. And we need to keep in mind the long term, when two things must be zero: poverty and emissions.

Image by Leonski under Creative Commons license.

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