The importance of Cabinet’s approval of a revised and more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) carbon mitigation target range for 2030 cannot be overstated.
South Africa’s new 2030 range is 350 to 420 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt Co2-eq) and represents an improvement on the 398 to 440 Mt CO2-eq range outlined in an initial draft NDC, released for public comment in March.
It is a noteworthy improvement on the 398 to 614 Mt CO2-eq range deposited with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2015 ahead of the Paris Agreement. The revised NDC will now be deposited with the UNFCCC ahead of COP26, scheduled for Glasgow, Scotland, in early November.
The new South African pledge is in line with one proposed by the increasingly influential Presidential Climate Commission, which, in its submission on the draft NDC, argued for an increase in the level of ambition, which it said posed little downside risk to the country and offered considerable upside.
Crucially, it is also aligned with Business Unity South Africa’s submission, which described the more ambitious range as “realistic”, albeit with the rider that South Africa also secured “technology, finance and comprehensive support” from the international community to implement the decarbonisation plan.
Indeed, therein lies the true significance of the new NDC. Because without outlining a level of ambition that could eventually result in South Africa transitioning to a net-zero emission economy by 2050, such support is unlikely to materialise.
Armed with this new NDC, government and Eskom, South Africa’s largest emitter, can travel to Glasgow (the country’s red-list status notwithstanding) with the scaffolding in place to build a climate-finance case.
As is now well known, Eskom views COP26 as an opportunity to market its just energy transition transaction, through which it aims to raise concessional finance to not only fund its own accelerated shift from coal, but to do so in a way that supports those workers, communities and businesses that will be negatively affected by coal decommissioning.
The NDC is a necessary condition for advancing the just energy transition transaction, particularly in light of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which shows that, unless mitigation action is stepped up dramatically during the current decade, the prospect of limiting the rise in the average global temperature to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels will be dashed by the early 2030s. The report notes that the 1.2 °C threshold has already been breached.
That said, the NDC on its own is insufficient for securing the scale of concessional finance envisaged by Eskom.
To achieve that, space has to be created for Eskom to take on fresh debt, which is currently not possible, given that the utility’s operating surplus of R31-billion last year fell short of debt interest payments of R37-billion.
Finding a sensible resolution to the problem is now the most pressing task facing government as the clock to COP26 ticks down.