When the sun rises over Durban’s Indian Ocean coastline in November, the world’s eyes will be firmly centred on the city as world gathers for the 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 17). The parties to the convention have met annually from 1995 in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was concluded and for the first time established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Whether or not more landmark policies to fight climate change will be agreed in Durban, COP 17 is an opportunity for South Africa to take a leadership position in showcasing its efforts to address this global issue. COP 15, held in Copenhagen in 2009, marked a huge shift in the politics of the fight against climate change when South Africa, alongside China, India and Brazil, played a key role in drafting the Copenhagen Accord. Unfortunately, COP 15 was seen by many as a failure because of the conference’s inability to pass binding carbon reduction policies. However, others have argued that this perceived failure at Copenhagen may prove useful, if it allows new global leaders like South Africa to rally the support of developing countries and broaden dialogue on critical issues of climate change.
Durban is foremost an African city, a place of rich contrasts and honoured traditions where vast undeveloped landscapes provide the backdrop for large-scale urban development and traditional rural lifestyles. Through this diversity, the city embodies the challenges facing most cities in the developing world.
Long a leading light and success story for sustainable urban development, South Africa has undertaken several bold projects to mitigate climate change while providing a platform to generate socio-economic benefits. Durban is piloting a Green Roof Project and large-scale community reforestation projects to show how Africa’s biodiversity can become a tool, not just for fighting climate change, but also in creating economic development opportunities. Johannesburg, meanwhile, is credited with having some of the largest man-made forests on earth with around 10million trees in the city. Elsewhere in the country around 1.3-million hectares are covered by lush forests used commercially with South Africa’s forestry sector which contributes 16billion rand (Dh7.2 billion) annually to the economy.
Within an African context, Durban’s municipal leadership is mindful that its renewable energy and climate change mitigation projects are not simply about protecting the natural environment, but about creating jobs and fostering development. Durban’s local government has pioneering initiatives that protect the city’s open spaces and biodiversity and large-scale domestic recycling projects but also poverty relief programmes that provide employment by clearing invasive alien plants, improved inner-city public transport systems and developing innovative water technologies and catchment management programmes.
As one of the host cities during last year’s Fifa World Cup soccer tournament, Durban demonstrated its ability to host large-scale carbon-neutral events. More broadly, South Africa has demonstrated its leadership in the fight against climate change across the African continent, as it aggressively seeks to move to green energy and capitalise on the advances already achieved in the green economy.
Speaking in June 2011, South Africa’s Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan called for “a new formula which links action on climate change to genuine development,” and that such initiatives should be directed at genuine job creation and skills development. He also reiterated his belief that Africa would become the site for research and development for new technologies and policies to fight climate change.
While South Africa is clearly taking climate change seriously from a policy-making standpoint, its corporate leaders are equally involved. For example, in June 2011, Vodacom invested $3.5 million (Dh12.85 million) to a green innovation centre at the cellular telephone company’s Johannesburg-based head office. Vodacom aims for the building to be South Africa’s first six-star rated property under the Green Star South Africa certification scheme initiated by the Green Building Association of South Africa.
The building will house Vodafone’s global operations for reducing the multinational’s carbon emissions around the globe and will rank among the most environmentally friendly buildings in the Vodafone group, powered with renewable energy, using cooling and heating technologies.
Set in the Johannesburg CBD, Absa Towers West (ATW) building has been constructed in line with the SA Green codes. The building has among environmental priorities the reduction of energy consumption, water consumption, material sources and carbon emissions.
Key among the green building elements of Absa Towers West is the gas-powered energy centre which contributes immensely to reducing environmental impact. Through the energy centre and other green elements, Absa will reduce its carbon dioxide emission by an estimated 19,000 tons a year. The building also boasts the largest grey water system in South Africa, which contributes to the reduction of water consumption by recycling 43,000 litres (43 m3) of water a day.
Climate activists have long sought collaboration between policy-makers, corporate entities, academics and NGOs. To this end, the UN established the Green Climate Fund following the Cancun COP meeting in 2010. The $100 billion fund is co-chaired by South Africa’s National Planning Minister, Trevor Manuel, a further testament to the international community’s recognition of South Africa as a leader in the fight against climate change. The fund, which is financed through carbon pricing, is used to mitigate deforestation and open up new agricultural land in Africa.
South Africa’s role as host to COP 17 follows a year where it has become increasingly vocal on the world stage. In addition to being the only African nation holding G20 membership, it recently joined the BRICS group of nations alongside Brazil, Russia, India, and China, and is one of the non-permanent members on the UN Security Council. These are all forums where South Africa provides a voice for the fight against climate change and environmental development that balances with the demand for job creation and economic diversity.
Miller Matola is CEO of Brand South Africa