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Cyril Ramaphosa: COP26 must ensure a just transition that leaves no one behind

The writer is the president of the Republic of South Africa

Humanity faces an unprecedented climate crisis, with the welfare of our planet and its inhabitants at stake. In South Africa, we must contend not only with these primary dangers, but also with potential economic and social damage should the global community fail to deal with the crisis in a way that works for developing as well as developed markets.

The latest report from the UN’s climate scientists warns that the pace of global warming is increasing, with Sub-Saharan Africa experiencing temperature gains well above the international average. Many South Africans are already feeling the effects through drought and flooding. Parts of Mpumalanga province are registering high levels of air pollution, with possible increases in respiratory illness and vulnerability to tuberculosis. Fish stocks have declined amid changing weather patterns and water temperatures.

As South Africa’s trading partners pursue the goal of net zero carbon emissions, they are likely to increase restrictions on the import of goods produced using carbon-intensive energy. Because so much of our industry depends on coal-generated electricity — coal is currently the source of 77 per cent of South African energy — products we export to these countries might face trade barriers. Consumers there may be less willing to buy our exports.

These trends mean we need to act with urgency and ambition to cut greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy. Many of our peer countries have already begun. But the only way for a transition to be successful is if there is broad commitment to a transition that is just — a journey to net zero that leaves no one behind.

The needs of workers and communities in industries and geographies that will be hurt by such a transition must be carefully considered. Organised labour, business and government need to develop programmes of reskilling, employment, compensation for loss of livelihoods, and other support to ensure workers are the major beneficiaries of our shift to a greener future.

South Africa is developing plans to enable a just move to net zero. Our electricity sector, which contributes 41 per cent of our greenhouse-gas emissions, will be the first phase. We will be decommissioning and repurposing coal-fired power stations and investing in new, low-carbon generation capacity. We will also pursue green industrialisation opportunities such as electric vehicles and fuel cell production that stimulate job creation and economic growth.

South Africa is endowed with abundant natural and mineral resources. These can be harnessed to build a new economy in such areas as renewable energy and green hydrogen. National power utility Eskom will be undertaking a pilot project at its Komati power station, which is due to shut down its last coal-fired unit next year, to produce power through solar energy. Komati will serve as an example of how the shift to renewables can be achieved.

To signal our ambition, cabinet recently approved the updated Nationally Determined Contribution, which sets a target range for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The top of the range, 420 megatons of CO2 equivalent, is compatible with restricting global warming to less than 2C, while the bottom of the range (350 megatons) is compatible with the Paris accord goal of restricting warming to less than 1.5C. Given the fact that South Africa’s total emissions are currently around 500 megatons of CO2 equivalent, this target will require a significant reduction in fossil fuel use.

Where we arrive in this range depends on the support we get. South Africa’s ambitions cannot be achieved without the more developed economies meeting promises they have made to provide financial assistance to developing economies in their energy transition. This help must come in the form of grants, loans at concessional rates and private investment from international and local pools of finance. We are encouraged by the commitment that many of our international partners have shown to support this transition, and to develop models of collaboration that could be applied in other countries.

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This, to be clear, is not about charity. This is about fairness and mutual benefit. Countries with developed economies carry the greatest responsibility for climate change because they have historically been the biggest polluters. Developing economies are the worst affected.

Beyond the matter of support for a fair transition, the truth is that there will be no averting the global climate crisis if the path to net zero does not include developing economies. At the COP26 summit we have a window of opportunity to secure a just transition for all countries and to safeguard the future of our planet.

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