By John Yeld

Environment and Science Writer

Climate change negotiations ahead of next month's crucial Copenhagen conference are being set up for failure by the rich developed nations, former Western Cape environment minister, Tasneem Essop, has warned.

Essop, now international climate policy advocate for environmental group WWF South Africa, has appealed to South African parliamentarians to lobby both their international counterparts and local constituents hard to ensure that an ambitious new climate deal being pushed by the Africa bloc - including South Africa - and other developing nations is accepted and signed at Copenhagen. They must ensure that current attempts to soften or scupper this deal for a powerful, revised Kyoto Protocol with legally binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not successful.

Speaking on Tuesday during the opening session of the two-day public hearings on the political, economic, legal, gender and social impacts of climate change, hosted jointly by 10 portfolio committees of Parliament, Essop said: "There are lots of very powerful interests that want to change things in the negotiations."

Essop said that negotiators had been working "tirelessly" for the past two years to hammer out a new climate change deal.

"The momentum has been built up, everything is in place. The text is on the table and ready so now is the time."

The rich nations - led by the Danish prime minister who is host of the Copenhagen talks - had recently started to lower expectations for the conference, Essop said.

"They're now saying there's not enough time (to conclude negotiations), and they're talking about a 'political agreement'. But we all know this is the weakest form of agreement that is not binding on anyone."

Saying the rich nations had "consistently shifted the goalposts" during the negotiations, Essop accused the administration of President Barack Obama of "hiding" behind the US Congress.

"And because the US is not ready to sign, the rest of the rich nations are hiding behind the US.

"I ask parliamentarians to be particularly aware of this. We cannot afford to emerge from Copenhagen with a weak political agreement."

Liz McDaid, of The Green Connection, told the hearings that the South African Parliament was "a few steps ahead" because it was tackling the issue.

"You realise that climate change is not just an environmental issue, and that it requires an integrated approach - that's fantastic."

But she said there were serious concerns about South Africa's energy policies, and why fossil fuels and nuclear power were favoured over renewable energy sources like solar, and about the way in which Eskom had been officially mandated to be the country's energy planner.

"Basically we're being held to ransom - it's not acceptable. MPs need to challenge Eskom on how it reaches its decisions about what is best for the country," she said.