London — Building a new, ambitious global climate agreement by 2015 will require drawing in China and the United States, and boosting financial help for poor nations so they feel "energised" to act, South Africa's climate change ambassador has said.
With China's new leadership under domestic pressure to tackle worsening pollution, and U.S. President Barack Obama promising action on climate change after his re-election, now is the moment to press the world's two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, said Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, South Africa's ambassador-at-large for climate change.
It is vital to reach a deal by 2015 so Obama can help ratify it during his final term, she said. "If we miss that point, we revert," she warned.
Finding sufficient international funding to help poorer countries develop in a cleaner way and adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change is also crucial to ensuring they become part of a new and ambitious-enough climate deal, she said.
"With finance, a lot can be resolved," she said during a meeting on Monday at London's Chatham House, an international affairs institute. But right now, "the level of finance is too low to energise" developing countries, she said.
South Africa hosted the 2011 U.N. climate talks in Durban, where countries agreed to negotiate by 2015 a new global agreement to deal with climate change. Under the plan, it would come into effect in 2020.
But efforts to build a new deal have been criticised as far too slow and lacking in ambition to deal with growing problems associated with climate change, including more extreme weather.
Critics have questioned the wisdom of hosting the 2012 U.N. climate talks in Qatar, which has the world's highest per capita carbon emissions, and this year's talks in Poland, Europe's biggest coal user and a country that is still making large-scale investments in coal-fired power plants.
But Mxakato-Diseko said she did not think Poland's lack of leadership in curbing emissions would hurt efforts to drive forward an agreement to cut them globally.
"Failure is very public," she said. "That incentivises the incoming chair to make sure there are no collapses."
Also key is to bring top political leaders back to the negotiations to show their support, she said. Since talks on a new global treaty collapsed in Copenhagen in 2009, attended by dozens of world leaders, many have stayed away, she said.
"It's important political leaders come in now," she said. "They were terribly bruised in Copenhagen but they need to come back in."
SOUTHERN AFRICANS ASK FOR HELP
Southern Africans are acutely aware of what is at stake in the negotiations, she added. The region has seen increasingly extreme weather, including droughts and floods.
That has destroyed crops and made life tougher, particularly for poor rural farmers, many of them women, she said.
Women already have to walk longer distances to collect water and wood, and are losing crops so often that they struggle to earn enough income and feed their families, she said.
"It's very real and very urgent, especially for poor people," Mxakato-Diseko said. South Africa "has a wonderful constitution that empowers women but we find the gains they have achieved in a short period of time have been eroded by climate change."
Everywhere she travels in the region, people say they need help to "meaningfully adapt" to the new conditions, she said.
That means providing more climate finance that is predictable, secure and balanced between funding emissions reductions and adaptation, she said. Currently, the vast majority of funding goes to mitigation.
Unless money is predictable, countries will be reluctant to make costly investments in switching to cleaner power sources or building infrastructure that reduces disaster risks, or they could abandon efforts they have started.
South Africa itself is weighing how best to act. The country has said it will introduce a carbon tax from 2015, a pioneering move in Africa. But it is also struggling to balance efforts to move to cleaner, and initially more expensive, renewable energy with the need to keep power costs low to spur development, Mxakato-Diseko said.
The country is "having a debate about the appropriate energy mix that can allow it to eradicate poverty without compromising environmental integrity," she said. Permitting more private investment in the country's largely state-owned energy grid could help, but that remains controversial.
South Africa's carbon tax, she said, is not intended to set an example for other countries. "It's us seeking the best way to manage," she said. "It's trial and error. We're seeking the best way we can for mitigating, for ourselves as a country."