News analysis

Smokestacks of a coal-burning power plant on a clo
  • South Africa has a new Climate Change Bill, and this one has teeth of a different kind.
  • Three years ago, the government floated the idea of carbon budgets that, if exceeded, would require the guilty party to promise to do better and pay a maximum of R10 million per year.
  • This time around, the plan is to impose extra taxes on gas emissions over budget, and the President will be directly in charge.
  • South Africa recently committed to dramatically lower carbon targets than it previously set as part of global mitigation efforts.
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In 2018, the South African government proposed a system of carbon budgets that would apply an honour system of sorts to climate change.

After extensive consultations, the minister responsible for the environment would set a threshold for greenhouse gas emissions, which would be used to figure out who should get a carbon budget, said the 2018 version of the Climate Change Bill.

Companies assigned such carbon budgets would be "obliged" to stick to them. If they failed, they would have to explain how they were going to fix things. The penalties they could face were fixed at a maximum of R5 million for a first offence, and R10 million for anything after that – plus the remote possibility of time in jail.

For a company such as Eskom, that would equate to an annual fine equal to 0.005% of its 2020 revenue, no matter how far over its emissions budget it went.

The 2021 Climate Change Bill – which is going to Parliament as of this week – takes a different approach. Instead of a one-size-fits-all threshold, it proposes a list of any greenhouse gases the minister in charge of environment "reasonably believes cause or are likely to cause or exacerbate climate change". Those get carbon-dioxide-equivalent limits, which translate into carbon budgets for individual companies.

A company that doesn't stick to its carbon budget must still explain how it will do better, and faces yet-to-be-determined "modalities and procedures for dealing with non-implementation of mitigation plans". But it will also be taxed at a higher rate for all emissions above its budget, a per-tonne penalty system that could end up costing very big emitters a lot more than R10 million per year.

The effect is to create an enforcement mechanism that will automatically squeeze emitters as the government seeks to squeeze the entire country into its newly-defined overall carbon trajectory, which is a lot more ambitious than it was in 2018. 

At the end of September, South Africa filed a new climate plan with the United Nations under the Paris Agreement, which promises emissions will peak by 2025 rather than by 2035 as previously planned, with an output target for the year 2030 that is 32% lower that SA's previous pledge.

See also | SA just formally lodged much more ambitious climate-change plans – at a cost of R4 trillion

The more forceful attitude towards climate change behind that pledge can be seen in several places in the new Bill too.

In 2018, the plan was to set up a ministerial committee on climate change. The 2021 version is a presidential commission, with a job description that includes keeping the government honest on its goals for emissions and adaptation to climate change, while being chaired by the President.

And instead of just calling for the creation of a greenhouse gas trajectory, as in 2018, the 2021 law includes South Africa’s new commitments: a peak of no more than 614 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent by 2025, a plateau for up to a decade after that, and a decline in absolute terms in carbon output by no later than 2036.

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