Slashing emissions in coal-dominated South Africa will require an overhaul of national policies as well as significant funding, a new study finds.
South Africa surprised nations in the run-up to climate talks in Copenhagen last month when it offered to curb the growth of carbon dioxide emissions 34 percent by 2020 and 42 percent by 2025 with financial support. The goal, leaders said, would be to have the country's emissions peak between those years and start to decline in absolute terms by 2035.
The country emerged as a powerful negotiating force in the U.N. talks, joining with China, Brazil and India to protect the interests of fast-developing nations responsible for a growing percentage of the world's emissions.
The group helped broker an agreement that has come to be known as the Copenhagen Accord, though South Africa expressed disappointment in the deal. In it, 28 nations pledge to reduce emissions and to make their reduction efforts subject to international review.
"Certainly it was not the break-through that the world expected and the climate needed," South African Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Buyelwa Sonjica said in a statement after the conference.
"It is weak, in that it is partial, and political rather than legally binding. But with some key issues resolved among world leaders represented should help move forward," she said.
According to South African press reports, country officials plan to submit a mitigation plan for achieving the 34 percent by 2020 reductions to the U.N. climate regime by Jan. 31.
That path, according to a report released this month from the German Development Institute, is achievable but is likely to be rocky. The study of private-sector investment in South Africa's electricity sector finds that early efforts to enhance and promote both energy efficiency and renewable energy "have failed to have any large-scale effects."
Capacity in renewable energy, the study found, "is lacking at every stage of the technology cycle, from research and development to installation and maintenance."
Currently, South Africa contributes about 1.1 percent of global emissions, according to the most recent 2005 data from the World Resources Institute. Per capita, it emits an average 9 tons of CO2 per person, almost on a par with the European Union and about double the sub-Saharan average of 4.5 tons.
Meanwhile, the threats of climate change to South Africa are severe, as they are to much of the continent. Experts fear that water supplies even without rising global temperatures could vanish within a few decades, and crop yields could decline as much as 20 percent.
"As it already faces climate change impacts in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, South Africa must drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions intensity soon," the study authors said.
Transforming the electricity sector -- a key part of the South African economy and responsible for most of the country's emissions -- is vital and may accelerate with measures like feed-in tariffs, the author argues. As more projects become commercially viable, private-sector participation will likely increase. But, the study warns, the government needs to ensure not only the supply of renewable energy, but also the demand.
The country has one major buyer of electricity, the state-owned Eskom power company. It produces the vast majority of South Africa's electricity and also owns and operates the national transmission system. But, the authors point out, while the company is responsible for distributing renewable energy to consumers, it is not obliged to buy it from renewable energy sources.
"If Eskom is to be the only buyer of renewable energy and it alone is to decide whether to buy electricity or not, there will be no investment certainty for renewable energy project developers," the report concludes.
Richard Worthington, climate change program manager for the World Wildlife Fund in South Africa, said the country needs to beef up its institutional capacity as well as incorporate greater capacity for renewable energy in electricity pricing and development plans.
"If we could marry the polemic of our president and the potential we have in terms of renewable energy resources, things could really take off in a hurry," he said.