No more time for sound bites

Emerging economies were disappointed by the lack of progress on climate change at the G8 summit, says South Africa’s environment minister. Marthinus van Schalkwyk speaks frankly to Isabel Hilton.

With just 15 months to go until crucial UN-led climate-change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, developed countries must recognise new political realities. They cannot continue to set the agenda unilaterally, according to South Africa’s environment minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk. Speaking in London earlier this month – following the Group of Eight summit in Hokkaido, northern Japan – van Schalkwyk said he was still hopeful of an agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009, but that developing countries would insist on defending their national interests.  

 “You will not see developed countries issuing a statement, as they did at the G8 meeting in Heiligendamm last year, and assuming that that is what the world will do. Developing countries, more and more, will decide for themselves what their national interest is, and will reserve the right to express it,” said the minister.

“The issue is simple,” he continued. “The carbon space is finite and 70% of it has been used up, mainly by the developed world. Our message is that for that remaining 30% we need to find a balance between the development space and the ecological space. We demand our fair share of that remaining 30% and we demand that it be properly managed.”

Developing countries are not insisting that developed countries take the entire burden of mitigation. “We are offering a substantial, verifiable deviation from business-as-usual,” van Schalkwyk explained. “But we want 90% cuts from the developed nations by 2050, with a verifiable mid-term target.” 

Van Schalkwyk dismissed the proposals put forward by the G8 leaders in Hokkaido, for 50% reductions in emissions by 2050, as a “slogan” that represented the view of the lowest common denominator in the G8 – that of the United States, a view with which many G8 partners, he said, were known to disagree.  

The G8 offer, he said, was too vague.  “They couldn’t even tell us what it meant. We asked them and they couldn’t give us an answer. We regard it as no more than a sound bite, because they are not willing to commit themselves to any base year, and – to put it in simple language – you must have a base year before you can calculate anything,” he said.

It was clear, according to the minister, that the G8’s lack of commitment to a year from which to calculate the 50% reduction was due to the resistance of the US to using 1990 as a base year. “If we look at 1990 until now, US emissions have risen 27%,” he said. “If we are talking about 2020, we are looking at a 60% growth in emissions by the US. It’s massive. And they obviously want an agreement in which they want to do less later, not only in comparison with us – the developing countries – but also in comparison to other developed countries. We definitely think it’s unfair, and it ought to be viewed as unfair by other developed countries.

“It’s non-negotiable from our side, as we said in Bali [at UN-led climate-talks in December 2007], that there must be comparability of effort between all developed countries. That is where we believe pressure must be put on the US not to have an escape clause or a special dispensation. It must be comparable to other developed countries.”

In contrast, the Hokkaido proposal from the G5 – the five leading emerging economies: India, China, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa – represented a united view that offered long-term commitments with verifiable targets on a base year of 1990. Developing countries, he said, were working on their own climate plans: the minister was due to present South Africa’s long-term scenario and planning to cabinet, with a view to a regulatory, fiscal and legislative package that would be clear in its obligations.

In South Africa, where 92% of energy generation is currently from coal, the government is willing to push nuclear power up to 27% of the mix. China has published its climate-change plan, with an impressive commitment to 20% of the energy mix in renewables, excluding nuclear, by 2020. Brazil has tabled a climate-change bill, the first such legislation in any developing country and India also recently published a national plan. “All of us,” the minister stressed, “are doing work in this regard and, even if binding targets are not required from us, we know that we must do more – and we are willing to do more.”

The position of the US, however, and the effect of the country’s resistance on other developed countries, remained a major obstacle to progress. “I think the actions of this presidency on climate change will go down as a historic failure of leadership,” he said. Acknowledging that participation in the Major Economies Meetings – the Bush administration’s initiative to discuss a new climate framework – has been “useful”, the minister nevertheless expressed disappointment with the US failure of leadership and stressed that he no longer had any hopes of progress under George W Bush. “It’s very disappointing that after the US promised to take leadership a year ago, it just didn’t happen,” van Schalkwyk said. Other countries were not prepared to participate in a process in which they were not full partners and the US had failed to bring its particular expertise – in new technologies and the finance of new technologies – to the table.

The ambiguous position of the US is negatively affecting the preparations for the Copenhagen meeting, with a lame-duck presidency unwilling to participate constructively in the fast moving international preparatory effort. There is unlikely to be a new mandate on climate change from the next US president until March 2009, only nine months before the negotiations begin; but with the clock ticking, the rest of the world cannot wait. Van Schalkwyk said other leadership was needed.

 “Last year,” he said, “the European Union made a very important unilateral commitment to mandatory 20% reductions in emissions by 2020, and 30% reductions if other nations made the same commitment.  That’s important progress in our view, if developed countries begin to take that kind of stance. We have long argued that the EU has underestimated its ability to move this process forward, and we hope that the European Union will take more leadership.” 

He was, still hopeful of an agreement in Copenhagen, he said, though he   acknowledged that major problems remained: the financing of mitigation and adaptation remained confused and uncertain, with too many competing initiatives, each with separate bureaucracies and insufficient funds pledged.  It was, he said, a core issue.

“In South Africa,” he explained, “generating one kilowatt-hour of electricity costs 13 cents (US$0.02). Solar power costs 46 cents per kilowatt-hour, and wind 57 cents. Funding that gap is the challenge.”  

On the other hand, persuading taxpayers in developed countries to sanction large financial transfers to developing countries could be difficult, he acknowledged, and would require rigorous international verification to ensure that the money was well spent and achieving the promised results. Many observers believe that the question of how much verification countries such as China will accept might prove to be a sticking point in the later stages of negotiation.

Van Schalkwyk remained hopeful that a deal could be struck in Copenhagen. “World opinion is very strong,” he said. “Everyone needs two years to ratify any agreement and we need to have something in place when Kyoto expires in 2012.” December 2009, he said, might be a very long month.


Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue