President Jacob Zuma. Picture: Stefanie Loos, Reuters

Paris - South Africa is taking a hard line at the COP21 climate talks in Paris - with money at the heart of its negotiating platform.

From the beginning of the summit, the country has insisted that rich countries must take most of the responsibility for climate change and foot the hefty bill for damage suffered by poor countries as a result of global warming.

“Paris must deliver a legally binding agreement which is based on equity and differentiation, and which will enable ambitious implementation actions through the provision of finance, technology and capacity-building support from developed countries,” president Jacob Zuma told other heads of state as the summit opened last week.

It is a bold stance for a country which is itself a high carbon emitter to adopt in sensitive talks where a chasm exists between rich and poor countries and money has been a critical sticking point.

South Africa wants rich countries to pay for the damage climate change will wreak on poor ones, especially small island states which risk being drowned by rising ocean levels. This concept is referred to as “loss and damage” in the negotiations, and has long driven a wedge between the developed and developing worlds.

Two years ago, at COP19 in Warsaw, discussions broke down on this point and poor countries walked out. South Africa played a critical role in establishing a mechanism to channel funds to those hardest hit. It remains a centrepiece of their Paris negotiating position.

The United Nations Environment Programme says within the next four decades, it could cost Africa up to $50 billion a year to adapt to climate change, if the world limits the rise in the world's temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. A 4 celsius degree rise could cost $100 billion a year.

South Africa negotiates as part of the Africa group, and, in line with the rest of the bloc, is lobbying for the rise in the global temperature to be limited to a safer 1.5C. Yet its own emissions reduction plans put its emissions on a very different trajectory. South Africa has made a voluntary pledge to cut carbon emissions to 34 percent from a “business-as-usual” scenario by 2020, and 42 percent by 2025.

While this pledge remains in line with commitments the country made at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, analysts say it is deeply inadequate and would lead to South Africa's carbon emissions actually exceeding 1990 levels by 110 percent in 2020 and by 141 percent in 2025. “If most other countries were to follow South Africa's approach, global warming would exceed 3-4C,” research group Climate Tracker said.

Environment Minister Edna Molewa has said while Paris represents a “golden opportunity” for a global climate accord, any agreement must balance environmental and development imperatives - a nod to South Africa's own battle with its energy challenges.