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South Africa’s long-awaited draft National Climate Change Bill sends a good signal, but the devil is in the details.

“It’s great news that a climate change bill is under development as climate change is already a devastating reality,” said Melita Steele, the senior climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa.

“However, we must make sure that it goes far enough, fast enough. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, the bill needs to take into account the just transition, recognise the scale of emissions from the energy sector and drive more ambitious targets.”

The Department of Environmental Affairs said the bill acknowledged that anthropogenic climate change represents an urgent threat to human societies and the environment and requires an effective, progressive and well-co-ordinated response.

“Transparency, compliance, accountability and proper enforcement will be key things to watch,” said Steele.

The government’s intentions to act on climate change must be matched with action, she pointed out. “As long as we continue to prop up the coal industry, this is not the case.”

If the bill is to be effective, it needs to include effective instruments, ambitious sector-specific targets and actions in line with limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C, which is the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change, she says.

“South Africa’s almost complete reliance on coal and effective action on climate change are completely incompatible and the climate bill must address this to be taken seriously.”

Bob Scholes, a professor of systems ecology at the Global Change Institute of Wits University, agreed.

“There is a tension and potential contradiction between the quite ambitious voluntary emission reduction goals, which South Africa has set itself and the heavy and ongoing investment in coal-based technologies, including new thermal coal power stations coming on line with a 60-year operating lifespan, ongoing and expanding coal mining for export and the Sasol coal-to-liquid industry.

“Mixed messages between the several ministries involved - Foreign Affairs has ultimate responsibility for the treaty negotiations, Environmental Affairs is the climate change focal point, Mineral Resources promotes coal mining and the jobs it brings, Trade and Industry handles the Sasol portfolio and Energy looks at the energy mix - is the root cause of the disunity.”

Noelle Garcin, the project manager of Action 24 - Active Citizens for Responsive Legislatures - said the draft legislation sends a clear signal that climate change is a cross-sectoral, holistic challenge that all sectors and sections of society need to help respond to. “This is needed to give more muscle to Environmental Affairs.”

The consultative approach prescribed in the draft bill to determine future policies and targets was commended. A number of mechanisms, procedures and planning are required by the government to advance a “just transition to a climate-resilient and low-carbon economy and society”.

“Unfortunately, it is much less prescriptive as to the level of ambition that these measures must seek to achieve, and leaves most decisions in that regard to be negotiated at a later stage,” Garcin said.

“Clearly the language in the current clauses is the result of careful political negotiations; we should interrogate whether legislation on an issue as critical and all-encompassing as climate change shouldn’t be more constraining from the outset. In particular, stricter and clearer provisions are needed regarding the national greenhouse gas emissions trajectory - South Africa’s projection of the levels of emissions until 2050.

“It is grossly insufficient in its current form and inconsistent with our commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement to contribute to the global effort to remain below a 2°C increase in global temperatures.”

The somewhat complex legislative and policy structure proposed in the bill “may create confusion as well as delay much-needed rapid implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures”.

Garcin encouraged citizens to provide input.

“Climate change is a challenge that concerns us all and it’s our responsibility to engage on it and demand ambitious and progressive legislation.”

The public has until August 8 to comment.

The Saturday Star