The Presidential Climate Commission – unpacking the details

by

Woodrajh Aroun

In December 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the establishment of a 22-person Climate Change Coordinating Commission (now called the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC)) to advise him on responses required to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The PCC has secretariat support, consultants and a hefty budget (R10m DFFE; R24m funders). Included in the commission are four active trade unionists drawn from the country’s three big trade union federations (COSATU, SAFTU and FEDUSA).

Although widely welcomed, the establishment of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) was seen in some quarters as nothing more than Ramaphosa’s knack for advisory groups and endless consultations. Having been in existence for a year, it is now crucial to look at the work that the commission has done and the direction that the body is taking.

Genesis of the commission

The idea of a climate commission was first mooted in the Presidential Jobs Summit held in October 2018. The framework agreement endorsed at the summit called for a statutory body in the form of a Presidential Climate Change Coordinating Committee   “to coordinate and oversee the just transition … understand the impact of climate change on jobs” and identify opportunities along the value chain for green jobs and green industries.

The National Employment Vulnerability Assessment (NEVA), and Sector Job Resilient Plans (SJRPs) written by Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) before the establishment of the PCC, were seen as crucial reference documents. Briefly, these plans seek to identify and protect those whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened as a result of the harmful effects of climate change or by a transition to alternate energy sources leading to the closure of coal-fired power stations and subsidiary industries along the fossil value chain.

What kind of an animal is the PCC?

Following Cabinet’s decision to approve the establishment of the commission and by the President’s own constitutional authority, the PCC is permitted to carry out its functions legally “as a multi-stakeholder Presidential Advisory Body” until such time that the Climate Change Bill currently before parliament is approved. Once enacted the PCC will remain an advisory body in spite of its newly acquired statutory status.

In addition to building the PCC as an institution and recruiting staff, the commission has been involved in intense discussions on the nature of the organisation. These discussions have culminated in a draft charter that sets out the objectives, functions, powers and duties of the PCC, Finance and Accountability, Delegation of Powers and Duties and Institutional Arrangements (Secretariat) guided by the “broad principles of institutional independence and impartiality”.

Section 13 of the Climate Change Bill allows for the PCC, at the request of the President, to report to government on matters relating to the reduction of greenhouse gases and steps to mitigate the harmful effects of human-induced climate change.

Although the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) approved the Climate Change Bill, the relationship between the PCC and NEDLAC  is not clear and it remains to be seen whether the two institutions are in a position to complement each other’s work as the transition to a low-carbon economy gains momentum.

The inclusion of several high-ranking Cabinet Ministers in the commission, including the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Minister of Public Enterprise and Minister of Finance might prove to be the PCC’s litmus test. If they are all on the same wavelength their contributions could have a positive impact on the work of the commission and speed up the process towards the adoption of a framework for SA’s energy transition.

However, with all the media attention around Minister Mantashe’s bias towards coal, he could turn out to be the ‘cat among the pigeons’ and slow down the work of the commission regardless of its mandate to reduce SA’s carbon footprint.

Achievements so far

Since its establishment, the PCC has initiated a series of discussions on policy issues in an attempt to draw up a framework for a just transition (JT). According to the Executive Director’s Report to the PCC October 21 2021, multi-stakeholder and constituency-based discussions on policy instruments, coal transition, employment and financing were completed. Further reports on water security and governance are forthcoming.

More importantly the PCC’s recommendation that the country adopt a more ambitious target range for its nationally determined contributions (NDCs) than those adopted in 2016, was approved by Cabinet on September 14 2021. On May 7 the PCC had convened a public hearing with all stakeholders and social partners. After extensive discussions with experts around modelling undertaken by, amongst others, the Energy Systems Research Group (ESRG) at UCT, the commission agreed to propose a more demanding target range for emission reduction in 2025 (398 – 510 Mt CO2 – equivalent) and 350 – 420 Mt CO2 – equivalent by 2030 as against earlier mitigation targets set in 2016 (398 – 614 Mt CO2 eq). The revised NDC will allow South Africa to lower its carbon emissions earlier than planned. By 2050 South Africa hopes to achieve a net-zero carbon emissions target.

The PCC successfully secured agreement with parties to lower emissions earlier than planned

Challenges

In 2011 SA signed a Green Accord with social partners and there was much talk of a green economy and green jobs amidst all the fanfare of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP17) in Durban.

Not long after that the country back-pedalled on renewable energy (RE), and ditched its 1 million solar water-heater programme. Several RE companies (solar and wind) either closed shop or became dormant. Ten years down the line we are no closer to our goals of becoming the continent’s pioneering industrial giant in renewable energy.

The 1-million solar water heater programme committed to in the Green Economy Accord of 2011 was later abandoned

By June 2022 the commission expects to release its flagship report on a Just Energy Transition. Will its recommendations fast track the localisation of renewable energy sub-sectors so as to ensure a transition towards a low-carbon economy and include concrete plans to absorb displaced workers from traditional fossil-based industries?

How will it deal with the process of decommissioning and repurposing coal power stations given recent concerns as reflected in a National Union of Mineworkers press statement issued on 11 November 2021? In this NUM made it clear that they supported the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, in his call for “Africa to unite against ‘coercion’ by the global anti-fossil fuel agenda … It will be very irresponsible for South Africa to stop the use of coal.”

Instead of bombarding the labour commissioners with never-ending lists of technical reports and policy briefs, it would be prudent for the PCC to heed the words of Hameda Deedat from the National Labour and Economic Development Institute (Naledi), speaking at a PCC Just Transition Framework Engagement with Labour, October 29 2021: “for a discussion with a presidential commission to be engaging with labour, you need to hear us talk … the voices of labour should be the priority … it is a worker-centric perspective and it must be workers presenting, not presentations being made by people to us”.

Woodrajh Aroun is a former NUMSA Parliamentary Officer who also played an active role in the union’s energy research group after it was formed in 2011.

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Woodrajh Aroun
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