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Minister Molewa’s lecture presented at Tsinghua University: Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development

07 September 2018


 “The road to 2020: sustainable development, international cooperation and the primacy of multilateralism in the fight against climate change”

Vice President of the Institute of Climate Change & Sustainable Development: H.E. Mr. Xie Zhenhua;
Executive Vice President of the ICCSD: Mr Li Zheng;
Leadership of the Tsinghua University,
Distinguished Guests, Lectures, Students

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my privilege to have been invited to address you this afternoon on one of the most pressing issues of our time; namely climate change. It is a subject that is inextricably linked to the global Sustainable Development Agenda and the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). It is a subject that touches the very heart of our existence as we witness that impact across the world.

Climate change is a global challenge requiring a global effort and global solutions; which necessitates international collaboration and cooperation under the broad umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

I wish to congratulate the faculty of Tsinghua University and Minister Xie in particular for having the foresight and vision to establish this Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development (ICCSD). This is but one of many laudable advances made by China as part of the international climate change effort.

This  lecture takes place just a few days after the conclusion of the 3RD  Heads of State Summit of the Forum on Africa-China Cooperation (FOCAC).

Since its establishment at the first Ministerial Conference in Beijing in 2000,  FOCAC has been instrumental in not just advancing Sino-African cooperation; but also greater South-South cooperation in line with South Africa’s foreign policy objectives.

Just less than a  week ago, South African President, His Excellency Mr Cyril Ramaphosa paid a State visit to His Excellency, President Xi Jinping and reviewed progress made  in the implementation of  our Five-to-Ten Year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) for Development.

This outlines specific areas of cooperation between our two countries including around matters of climate change. During the recently concluded State Visit we also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation in the field of Climate Change.

It is worth noting that our strategic partnership with China is predated by a long history of fraternal and political ties between our governing party the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party of China (CPC). The CPC contributed to the fight against the colonial apartheid regime in South Africa that enforced segregation in supporting liberation movements across African continent. Ours is a relationship forged in the trenches of struggle and sustained by continued solidarity.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It was solidarity and collaboration between the nations of the Global South that helped to bring about the end of apartheid; as well as many, many other people’s struggles worldwide.

Likewise, it is solidarity and international collaboration that is our compass today, as the nations of the world, we collectively mobilize to combat climate change and transition our respective countries along low-carbon, inclusive, climate resilient pathways.

Like many other developing countries, South Africa looks forward to the full implementation of the Paris Agreement to Combat Climate Change. The ultimate objective of this historic agreement is to safeguard current an   d future generations through limiting temperature increases and building low carbon, inclusive and resilient economies and societies.

At the same time, what is foremost to consider is that the transition to the low-carbon, inclusive, climate change resilient future should take place in a manner that is aligned with the growth priorities of developing countries such as ours.

At the crux of it all is how we as developing countries contribute to combat climate change, whilst simultaneously addressing poverty, inequality and the legacy of under-development in our respective societies.

The principles of UNFCCC also as embodied in the Paris Agreement, explicitly acknowledge both the vulnerability of poorer countries to the effects of climate change, and the right of all countries, developed and developing, to economic development.

As we consider this fundamental issue, we remember and reaffirm that different countries of the world established their own Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC’s) and submitted such to the UNFCCC.

It goes without saying that approaches to countries’ NDCs differ vastly, based on their respective levels of development. Some emphasise that the fight against climate change should be premised on a fight against poverty. Others, especially from countries that have reached high levels of development, are premised purely or mainly on carbon emission reduction targets given their high levels of GDP and per capita income.

The fact that these contributions differ, is in line with the key principle of the UNFCCC: “that efforts to protect the atmosphere should be shared fairly among countries” in accordance with their "Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities.”

There can be no discussion about combating climate change that does not include sustainable development. Likewise, there can be no discussion about sustainable development without taking into account climate change and its associated impacts.

As noted in a 2015 paper published by University College London and the University of Agder ‘one of the major challenges for the Paris Agreement is retaining relevance within the wider context of the SDG’s, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the various issues that these agreements cover. (Kellman; 2015)

This multilateral architecture is mutually reinforcing and locates climate change within the wider disaster risk and sustainable development context. This means that all countries of the world face stark policy choices in the fight against climate change. Thus they all have to act in the best interest of their countries’ development, while simultaneously being mindful of the need to contribute to the reduction of global emissions.

Following this broad overview of the intersectionality of the issues we are grappling with, I want to briefly trace the process that preceded the signing of the Paris Agreement.

After all, as with so many things in life, to know where you are going it is important to understand where you have come from.

As you know, the international climate change regime owes its existence to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was established by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorology Organization (WMO) in 1988. This provides that foundation for scientific evidence-based policy and decision-making.

The 1990 1st Assessment Report of the IPCC was an instrumental building block of what would eventually become the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The Convention is a solid regime that offers hope for the vulnerable.

It acknowledges the leadership of those with the capability to secure a meaningful future for the coming generations.  It came into force in 1994 and sets an ultimate objective of stabilizing "greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic (human-induced) interference with the climate system. (UNFCCC)"

The Convention notes that the largest share of historical emissions originate in developed countries and therefore holds that developed countries should take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It further holds that developed countries should support climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries.

Over the years, the UNFCCC has observed several turning points. One of them was at the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP17) that was held in Durban, in the east coast of South Africa, in 2011. The Durban Climate Change Conference could rightfully be described as a turning point in the international climate change negotiations.

It was in Durban that a new long-term pathway for the development of a fair, ambitious and legally binding future multi-lateral and rules-based global climate change system was agreed upon- a system that would balance both climate change and development imperatives.

It was the 4-year negotiations mandated by COP17 in Durban – the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform (ADP) that catalysed the global climate change effort: eventually resulting in the signing of the Paris Agreement.As a developing country, South Africa could not be more proud of having hosted the watershed Durban Climate Change CoP, and of being associated with its successful outcome.

As we are only too aware, Ladies and Gentlemen, it has been a rocky road fraught with challenges which at times seemed that we as nations of the world would never reach consensus.

One such turning point in the UNFCCC was the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Its first commitment period from 2008 to 2012 set legally binding targets for developed countries to reduce their emissions collectively by at least 5%. The second commitment period was agreed to in Durban and brought into implementation in Qatar. Sadly, to date, the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol has not entered into force.

This heightened recognition that without a multilateral cooperative agreement in place, the multilateral climate change process ran a very real risk of collapsing.

The Durban COP had to resolve a set of complex and inter-related issues such as how to balance the future of the Kyoto Protocol with the legal form of the outcome under the Convention; as well as the so-called “unfinished business” from the Bali Roadmap that included measures of increasing the level of ambition of mitigation; and pledges from developed and developing countries towards achieving the agreed global goal of limiting temperature increase to below 2 degrees. 

The Paris Agreement truly represents a turning point in global climate change governance and strengthens rules-based multilateralism. It signals a rapid change in pace towards low carbon development and growth from 2020 onwards.

As we, the nations of the world limber up for its official implementation in 2020, there are a great many critical issues we need to address; not just with regards to our collective state of readiness but also the reality that the main provisions of the Paris Agreement are effectively voluntary, despite ‘being enshrined in a legally binding process’.

We are only too aware of the fragility that existed within the climate negotiations space in the lead up to Paris.  That fragility exists now as we work towards 2020 and towards a new draft text. At the heart of this is the need to strike a fine balance between what is best for the world and for our respective countries, without countries feeling that they are being held ‘accountable’ by others.

It is here at this nexus between climate action and sustainable development, which our biggest challenge lies; on how we balance our emission reduction efforts with developing our respective economies.

It is developing countries like ours that the poorest of the poor live; and it is the poor who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

As The Guardian newspaper noted in an article on the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “low income countries will remain on the frontline of human-induced climate change over the next century experiencing gradual sea-level rises, stronger cyclones, warmer days and nights, more unpredictable rains, and larger and longer heatwaves.”

This as average land and sea temperatures are expected to continue rising, resulting in a frequency of extreme weather events especially in vulnerable countries with low levels of development.

The changing climate will also result in increased water and food insecurity in these countries. It is they who will ultimately suffer most, despite bearing the least historical responsibility for climate change.

This apparent contradiction becomes even more pertinent within the context of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and SDG 1 carrying with it the aspiration of ‘ending poverty in all its forms everywhere’.

The UNFCCC’s provisions are far-sighted, innovative and firmly embedded in the concept of sustainable development.

As far back as 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, provided the fundamental principles and the programme of action for achieving sustainable development.

At that time the articulation of sustainable development was anchored by three interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars; economic development, social development and environmental protection.

Poverty eradication, changing unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are essential requirements for sustainable development, particularly for developing countries.

In considering our many complex and interrelated challenges, there is of course the issue of mitigation versus adaptation – should a developing country’s focus be on either or, or both?

This is very important because Adaptation is always in danger of being pushed off the international climate change agenda.

As noted by the UNFCCC, “Adaptation is a process through which societies make themselves better able to cope with an uncertain future. Adapting to climate change entails taking the right measures to reduce the negative effects of climate change by making the appropriate adjustments and changes.”

South Africa is of the view that in order to adequately respond to the complex challenges of development and climate change, we need first and foremost to understand development pathways that reduce poverty, inequality and GHG emissions. Unless we do so we cannot realise a just transition.

Integrating adaptation with the SDG’s, as noted in a technical paper by the UNFCCC, ‘can be beneficial for building resilience comprehensively across societies and that there are many opportunities to support further policy integration between sustainable development, adaptation and disaster risk reduction, owing in part to the common themes, scopes and objectives of the three global agendas.’

South Africa concurs with the UNFCC that “it is urgent that the vulnerability of developing countries to climate change is reduced and their capacity to adapt is increased and national adaptation plans are implemented.”

The international community must continue to work together to mobilize resources and financing to support the adaptation efforts of developing countries, especially those with the least capacity to respond to the effects of climate change.

We have seen and continue to see examples of the way in which societies are resolving these challenges in both the developed and developing world.

Adaptation strategies have ranged from weatherproofing houses on stilts, to climate smart agriculture to developing early warning systems for extreme events. In a changing climate, existing water related challenges are exacerbated, therefore enhancing water security is also central.

Like many other countries on the continent South Africa is semi-arid with less than 5% of annual rainfall available to recharge our groundwater aquifers.

A persistent drought has led to many of our major rivers running dry and our dams half-full. It is therefore easy to imagine how this has extremely dire consequences for every aspect of our economy and society, especially with regards to food security. Significant investment is therefore required to change the way we use and manage our scarce and fragile water resources.

The importance of technology transfer for the mitigation of emissions and to enable countries to meet their social and economic needs has been a consistent and non-negotiable principle for the Brazil South Africa, India and China (BASIC) group of countries, of which China and South Africa form part. BASIC countries share a common perspective with regards to both meeting the costs of adaptation, and contributing to mitigation technologies, according to a paper published by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a South African think tank.

When considering the fine balance between reducing emissions and meeting the respective needs of our countries for development, China’s experience has shown it is possible work towards a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time create jobs and grow the economy; thereby alleviating poverty.

Minister Xie, your country should be congratulated for its significant and innovative preparatory work it has already undertaken towards creating a low carbon, climate resilient and sustainable world.

I must begin right here in Beijing – since we arrived for FOCAC we have experienced nothing but blue skies and magnificent air quality. This is not coincidence, but the effects of a dramatic improvement in air quality not just here in the capital but across 28 Chinese cities, according to China air quality index.

The 2018 figures reflect that concentrations of Particulate Matter (PM2.5) has dropped by 33 percent from the same period a year previously in these cities; and in Beijing it fell by 54% in the fourth quarter.

With His Excellency, President Xi Jinping having pledged to ‘unleash an iron hand’ on pollution - the improved air quality in Chinese cities is the result of a deliberate anti-pollution campaign as well as measures to switch from coal to cleaner burning fuels in both residential areas and industries.

China is moving towards the greater use of natural gas, biomass, heat pumps, direct electrical heating and geothermal power amongst others. It is also working hard to retrofit existing energy infrastructure and ensuring that climate change impacts are taken into account in the construction of new ones.

The maritime sector is another area where notable progress has been registered. China is enforcing tighter rules on emissions in its major ports and extending emission control areas to include the entire coastline from 2019.

I want to particularly commend you for the enormous progress you have achieved in the field of renewable energy. You have demonstrated that it is not only possible for a developing country to diversify its energy mix in response to climate change, but also that it is also possible to take the lead in the development and manufacturing of renewable energy technologies.

China’s spatial planning initiatives have resulted in a greater greening of cities, urban and residential areas as well as the countryside. We can see the effects of this right here at Tsinghua University.

China’s flagship carbon trading scheme in the power sector has been a major innovator that countries like ours hope to replicate.

Give all these and many other efforts, it is no surprise that China has already hit its 2020 target to cut carbon emissions and to reduce the carbon intensity of the economy- this whilst growing your economy. As noted by the UNFCCC, between 2005 and 2015 the economy grew by 1.48 times but emissions dropped by 38.6 percent.

I now want to share South Africa’s perspective and actions in this regard.

South Africa’s contribution to the global effort to address climate change is based on our National Climate Change Response Policy.

It is in this context that our Nationally Determined Contribution as submitted to the UNFCCC includes 3 distinct components, on (i) mitigation, (ii) adaptation and (iii) the Means of Implementation. It builds on our 2009 emission reduction pledge and presents an emission reduction trajectory range for 2025 and 2030.

It sets a number of national adaptation goals, including the development of a National Adaptation Strategy and Plan, the strengthening of institutional capacity for addressing adaptation at all levels, and developing a national early warning system.

We have integrated climate change adaptation and mitigation into our Government planning, as we strive to realize the vision of a low-carbon future as outlined in our National Development Plan (NDP).

South Africa has undertaken Long-term Adaptation Scenarios, including the economic impacts; and are particularly interested to hear more about the innovative development pathways that China is planning, and to understand more fully the notions of an ‘ecological civilization’.

South Africa has also achieved success with regards to our Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPP); our Green Transport Strategy and our Energy Efficiency in Industry Strategy.

I want to refer briefly to our the REIPPP that has been lauded internationally for best practice and has resulted in us being a leading destination for renewable energy investment.

To this end, I commend various Chinese companies that are making significant investments in South Africa in our renewable energy programme.

The NDP I mentioned earlier requires 20 000 MW of renewable energy by 2030 supported by South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP).

As of April 2018, we have procured 6 422 MW from 112 Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer (IPP) projects.

Of these, 3 776 MW has been connected to the grid from 62 projects, which have generated 9 255 GWh of electricity over the last year. This in turn has saved 9.4 Mt of GHG emissions over the last year. The rollout consists of the following energy technologies: wind, solar PV, concentrated solar power, landfill gas, hydro and biomass.

The latest version of the IRP was recently published for public comment and places a renewed emphasis on the acquisition of renewable energy as part of the energy mix.

It provides clarity and certainty to investors with regards to South Africa’s ‘direction of travel’ insofar as energy is concerned.

With regards to green transport, the South African Government has initiated a process to decarbonise the sector and lower emissions by introducing and providing support for initiatives such as:

  • An uptake of electrical and hybrid cars;
  • A cleaner fuels and energy efficiency programme,
  •  Promoting and encouraging non-motorised transportation,
  • Investment in public transport infrastructure.
  • Advanced bio-energy within transportation, and
  • An expanded, efficient and integrated Bus Rapid Transport System. So far the fleet of the City of Tshwane in the Gauteng province is using Compressed Natural Gas (CNG); the City of Johannesburg is using a dual system for their bus network with a combination of diesel and CNG. For phase 2, the City has identified CNG and electric busses as potential newer technologies. The City of Cape Town in the Western Cape Province has selected to procure electric buses for their phase 2.

Furthermore, the Department of Transport has also embarked on developing the first transport environmental strategy – the Green Transport Strategy. It aims to promote green mobility to ensure that the sector supports the achievement of economic growth targets while providing greater safety to citizens and commuters alike, meeting social needs, and protecting the environment.

The objectives of the GTS include:

  • Promoting sustainable and cleaner mobility development; and
  • Facilitating the sector’s just transition to a climate-resilient and low-carbon economy and society.

The Department of Environmental Affairs Environmental Programmes also manages programmes such as the Working for Water Programme that seeks to improve water production by removing alien and invasive plant species from water catchment areas; thereby restoring ecosystems - as well as the Department’s Land Rehabilitation programme.

Like China has already done, South Africa is in the process of finalizing legislation to introduce a carbon tax. This will go a long way towards reducing emissions, as has China’s emissions trading scheme.

We have noted with interest work being done on this by Tsinghua University. We need bright young minds across the BASIC countries to work with our senior academics to cut through the Gordian knot of inequality and mitigation.

South Africa continues to strengthen the requisite policy and legislative framework that is necessary for the full implementation of policies.

The legislative framework not only helps us with achieving a coordinated approach as Government; but fulfils the need for cross-sectoral co-ordination, policy development and decision-making.

It furthermore provides the necessary legal obligations to implement a post 2020 mitigation system – including compiling a regular greenhouse gas inventory; implementing a monitoring and evaluation system; aligning policies; and making it mandatory for various spheres of Government to undertake risk and vulnerability assessments.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Whilst we have made considerable progress, scaling up our efforts requires significant investment; and we can only achieve this with support and scaled-up funding.

As the UNFCCC technical paper further notes, what is crucial is that adequate, sustainable support for adaptation efforts from public, private, national and international sources – including finance and technology support – will be critical in the years ahead.

South Africa remains committed to play our part in the fight against climate change, be it domestically through sound policies, programmes and actions or in the internationally arena through international cooperation and dialogue.

Nowhere was this more evident than during the negotiations at COP21 in Paris, where as chair of the Group of 77 plus China we cooperated in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Paris Agreement.

A global challenge of this magnitude requires unprecedented levels of cooperation by the whole international community. It requires bold action and participation by all, which can only be achieved under the broad based legitimacy of the UNFCCC.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Taking into account the fragilities and sometimes deep fault-lines that existed at the negotiating table, we should always guard against the possibility of sliding back on the commitments we made at Paris both collectively and individually.

We have come a long, long way, and the only way to achieve the global goal we have set – namely to keep temperature increases below the agreed 2 degrees – is through maximum commitment and maximum ambition. 

Multilateralism only thrives in the presence of consensus. Whilst we of course want to leave no-one behind; at the same time we cannot afford to reverse our gains.

South Africa, like China, has a long-term transformational and developmental agenda that prioritises poverty alleviation, reducing inequality and energy poverty whist at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building a low carbon, inclusive climate resilient economy and society.

With the right international cooperation, backed by sound domestic policies and an associated enabling environment - we can simultaneously meet the SDG’s aimed at eradicating poverty, inequality and unemployment;  reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and safeguard the environment for our people.

This will remain our guiding light as we aim for zero poverty, zero carbon and zero impacts.

It was His Excellency President Xi Jinping who said: “Tackling climate change is a shared mission for mankind…Let us join hands to contribute to the establishment of an equitable and effective global mechanism on climate change, work for global sustainable development at a high level, and bring about new international relations featuring win-win cooperation.”

The time to act on climate change is now. As nations of the world we owe it to not just ourselves, but to future generations, to bequeath them a legacy for eternity. In this regard we look forward to many years more of Sino-South African cooperation in the climate change arena.

His Excellency President Xi Jinping, remarked at the opening ceremony of FOCAC 2018 Heads of State Summit: “I am confident that the baton of China-Africa friendship will be passed from one generation to the next and that China and Africa, working together, will build an even more vibrant community with a shared future”.

The task is a weighty one, and we are mindful of the responsibility with which we have been entrusted.

Yet it is not an insurmountable challenge if we accelerate the momentum of international cooperation and solidarity. It is the multilateral process - and it alone - that can assist many other developing countries to realise their aspirations.

In the words of the father of the South African nation, former President Nelson Mandela, and as we celebrate the centenary year of this great Statesman, the words reverberate in our minds every time when we have to consider the gravity of such a situation.

“It always seems impossible – until it’s done.”

I thank you.


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