Leading the pack

As the date for the 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 17) comes closer the world’s eyes are starting to turn to Durban where the convention will be held in November. 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.

Many sees COP 15 as a failure because of the lack of binding carbon reduction policies being passed. While others argue that the conference saw new global leaders like South Africa gather support of developing countries and open up a dialogue on critical issues of climate change.

Durban is considered as an prime example of what most developing countries face, namely vast undeveloped landscapes contrasted against large-scale urban development and more informal settlements.

South Africa has been a leading light and is also littered with success stories for sustainable urban development by undertaking 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 R16-billion annually to the economy.

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 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.

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