SA’s climate financing must not lead to increased debt

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South Africa will have a key role at COP 27 in Egypt next month, playing an important role in ensuring that developing countries get what they deserve.

And to be clear, they deserve more than the help they’ve received so far, because as has been frequently pointed out, Africa is the most climate-vulnerable continent, despite being responsible for only 4% of greenhouse gas emissions.

So industrial countries need to pay the huge debt they owe to developing countries for creating the massive problem, a problem now big enough to suggest the ambition of keeping the global temperature rise below the 1.5˚C threshold is a pipe dream. Keeping the rise to 2˚C above pre-industrialisation levels is probably already a more realistic target.

This week, Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, held a webinar and discussion with various stakeholders, giving the official South African position that will be taken to COP 27. There are a few important messages that the South African delegation will hope to impart:

  • a just transmission is essential and has to be people driven. The move to renewables must not negatively impact workers and must not only benefit the private sector.
  • financial promises must be kept. That failure so far has resulted in a loss of trust between developing and developed nations.
  • there needs to be more balance between mitigation and adaptation, closer the 50-50 split initially envisaged. At the moment about 75% of money is spent on mitigation
  • there needs to be a renewed focus on loss and damage, as the people that are most severely impacted by catastrophic climate events are for the most part living in developing countries
  • whatever policies and plans are adopted, developing countries in Africa must not be forced into greater debt in order to fix a problem not of their making.

Creecy says the War in Ukraine, strained international relations (eg USA-China), and the pandemic have seen disrupted supply chains, inflationary pressure and food and energy insecurity world-wide. But she believes these won’t prevent agreement at COP 27, although they might lower ambitions at the meeting.

South Africa is key to the future of climate financing because of the Just Energy Transition Partnership, which should provide 8.5 billion US dollars in financing to help the country move away from coal-based energy. There have been some difficulties in hammering out the nitty-gritty of the agreement, in part because of the need for South Africa to avoid going deeper into debt. It is that aspect that will be monitored closely by developing nations who might look to a similar deal in the future.

The issue of increasing the debt of countries who can least afford it, to mitigate and adapt to a global problem they played such a small part in creating, is at the core of the direction that the African Group of Negotiators will want to see at COP 27. Of the 9 countries that are already regarded as being in already in debt crisis, all but one is in Africa. (Those countries are Chad, Rep of Congo, Grenada, Mozambique, Sao Tome & Principe, Somalia, Sudan, Zambia, Zimbabwe)

To this end, there will be a push for the transformation of international finance architecture and for the reform of Multilateral Development Banks to make them fit for purpose. The limited access to, and extreme cost of borrowing is unsustainable for developing countries. There is also a need to look beyond just borrowing and grants to other innovative forms of financing.

Developed countries have focused their spend on mitigation. Lowering greenhouse gas emissions in their own countries is easier to sell to their own people, and the benefits are more tangible. But the Paris Climate Agreement set out a 50-50 split between the financing of mitigation and adaptation. It is that second concept that is key for Africa. It’s estimated that Climate Adaptation in Africa will cost between US$259-407billion between 2020-2030 – that’s an annual need of US$26-40 billion. A long-term roadmap for financing based on the needs of developing countries is necessary, but it has to come with real commitment. Trust was eroded by the failure to raise the promised US$100-billion per annum. At the moment it sits at just above 70-billion. This also means the promises must be new, and not just old deals in new packaging, which simply exacerbate the debt crisis.

Another buzz phrase at COP 27 will be the concept of “Loss and Damage” – that is the often-devastating consequences of climate change. The floods in Pakistan this year and the drought in the Horn of Africa have been made much more severe by climate change. So too the floods in Kwazulu-Natal in April. The projected costs of L&D for Africa between 2020 and 2030 is estimated to be between 289 and 440 billion US dollars. Agreement will be needed on governance of L&D, including support for the Santiago Network, which calls for organisations to work together to provide technical assistance.

The South African government delegation will push for narrowing the gap between pledges and implementation, push for support for just transitions, and build momentum towards global economic reforms. There might not be any headlining grabbing deals out of this meeting, but if these targets can be met, it will have been a success for South Africa, and Africa as a whole.