The new solar panels gracing the roofs of buildings there are part of the largest photovoltaic facility in Africa, their German manufacturer says.
South Africa, host of what is formally known as the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is keen to demonstrate its commitment to combating global warming with numerous green projects, initiatives and programmes.
The city of Durban also wants to shine bright green during the 12-day gathering of politicians, climate experts, journalists and celebrity guests, including Bono, Angelina Jolie and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Delegates will have 600 free bicycles at their disposal and eat with biodegradable cutlery.
Hosting COP17 will cost South Africa about $40m.
The government of President Jacob Zuma would like to burnish its foreign policy credentials with climate protection. But in seeking an instrument to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012 and is the only binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Pretoria must tread lightly even though Zuma has always supported an extension and a broader global agreement.
As a member of the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) climate group – almost identical to the BRICS group (plus Russia) of emerging economies – South Africa will be careful not to alienate its partners in Beijing, New Delhi and Brasilia.
Still, South Africa has set much more ambitious climate policy goals than other emerging economies. Alternative energy projects are sprouting up across the country.
SARi (South African Renewables Initiative) is a state-sponsored programme promoting massive wind parks and solar installations. South Africa aims to raise the share of renewables in its energy mix to 15% by 2020 and create 50 000 news jobs in the “green economy.”
“We want to become Africa’s first green economy,” said Minister of Trade and Industry Rob Davies. South Africa has made a non-binding commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 34% “below business as usual” by 2020, and to 42% by 2025.
There is considerable doubt among South Africans that these targets can be met. Zuma himself has called for caution.
“The multilateral climate-change regime should also seek to strike a balance between climate and development imperatives. It must not jeopardise economic growth and poverty eradication in developing countries,” he said.
South Africa’s energy picture at present is rather dismal. It produces more than 90% of its electricity in coal-fired power stations. Globally, it accounts for just 1% of man-made greenhouse gases, but its emissions per capita are about as high as industrialised countries. Meanwhile, it is building gigantic new coal power stations in Medupi and Kusile.
South Africa’s energy-intensive economy – particularly the gold and iron ore mines – fear almost nothing more than a tax on carbon dioxide emissions under consideration by the government. They worry it could hit the domestic market and possibly exports to Europe and America.
A major reason for South Africa’s “go green” efforts is the immediate effect of climate change, which has been blamed for heavy rainfall and flooding in some regions and severe drought in others. Experts say that Durban, a port city with more than 3 million inhabitants, can expect rising sea levels and more frequent storms.
“Like other countries, the number one threat to our sustainable development, economic growth and quality of life is related to the impacts of climate change,” said Edna Molewa, minister of water and environmental affairs. “Climate change is already a measurable reality,” she said, pointing to losses in agricultural production and rising food prices.
But South Africa is struggling with other problems as well – enormous ones. Most of all, widespread poverty among the country’s blacks, an unemployment rate of 25% and the sad state of education are straining society along with the treasury.
Nevertheless, the host of the UN climate change conference will present itself in Durban as exemplary in climate policy. Even as having the money to implement bold programmes later is another matter.