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FEATURE: South Africa’s approach to the politics of climate negotiations

An array of different ideas and interests shape a country’s approach when it joins international climate negotiations. Domestic and international considerations, material and ideological factors all compete for influence over a country’s leaders, moulding their stance on how (and by whom) climate change should best be tackled.

South African as an ambitious ‘bridge builder’

South Africa has a reputation both domestically and internationally as a constructive participant in the UNFCCC process and furthermore an active ‘bridge builder’ between different parties. A material example of this was seen when President Zuma offered a voluntary emissions reduction pledge to the UNFCCC process (at the COP15 meeting in Copenhagen) that many within South Africa consider to be overly ambitious. South Africa has not been under the same international pressure as its BASIC partners – particularly China and India – to take on mitigation commitments. And neither is climate change a hot issue domestically, meaning there are few political points to be scored by pursuing ambitious climate diplomacy.

So what motivates this level of ambition and the broader pattern of constructive engagement over most of the last decade?

To a large degree the explanation lies in the influence of several key foreign policy objectives. The identity projected from South Africa reveals elements of both a developing country and industrialised economy, and this dichotomy influences its approach to climate diplomacy. A post-apartheid desire to present moral leadership, a neo-liberal view on both its own and regional economic development, a desire to transform the power structures in international institutions and a grounding in African reality are among the key driving norms.

The influence of international relations

Driven by these, a number of strategically important international relations are influential in terms of South Africa’s approach to climate diplomacy. One is with the so-called ‘emerging economies’ of India, China and Brazil. South Africa’s cooperation with the BASIC group since late 2009 is consistent with a broader pattern of recent geopolitical alignment, which includes the IBSA Dialogue Forum (a platform for cooperation between India, Brazil and South Africa) since 2003 and a recent invitation to join the BRIC forum.

Although BASIC emerged within the climate arena, its main strategic utility for South Africa lies in broader foreign policy goals. A seat at the table with these growing economic powers is both a status boost and an opportunity to nurture future economic opportunities, while BASIC also continues the tradition of IBSA and BRIC in challenging traditional power structures in the international system.

At the same time, engagement within Africa remains a core priority. South Africa has been a vocal member of the African Union and also has a strong role in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and in institutions such as NEPAD. It has emphasised that relations with other African states extend beyond purely economic ties and include support for building regional peace and stability. Whether motivated by ideology or by realist concerns with security and economic prosperity, Thabo Mbeki outwardly promoted an ‘African agenda’.

African and BASIC interests are not always in harmony, evident in the accusations from some African countries that South Africa had betrayed continental interests when it aligned with BASIC and jointly drafted the Copenhagen Accord at COP15. South Africa’s courting of BRIC by offering itself as a ‘gateway’ to Africa is also reportedly a source of some tension.

What does this mean for future climate diplomacy?

The task of navigating this complicated landscape of foreign policy objectives and partners presents a challenge. Unsurprisingly, the pressure of competing interests creates a certain unpredictability in response, and the way in which South Africa resolves this challenge oscillates. Sometimes particular ideas determine the outcome, as in its stance on human rights issues in Zimbabwe or Burma which frustrated the West. At other times purely realist concerns about promotion of national self-interest take precedence, as in negotiations with the EU on an economic partnership agreement that some argue will have detrimental consequences for its SADC partners.

This pattern of unpredictability creates a sense of uneasiness within particularly the Africa Group in climate negotiations.

A further challenge to the continuity of South Africa’s constructive approach may yet come from the domestic level. While domestic circumstances presently have little influence over South Africa’s approach to climate diplomacy, this will probably change as climate policy moves from rhetoric towards implementation. Influential business interests have already come out in opposition to a carbon tax, meanwhile few hold out hope that the labour movement will emerge as a progressive voice on climate policy.

The early signs of influence on climate diplomacy are already visible, with the emergence around 2009 of a new rhetoric about needing ‘carbon space’. Coupled with the already difficult task of balancing its international partners and ambitions, these domestic constraints create further complexity for the country’s leaders and make a constructive approach to future climate negotiations far from certain.

Aaron Atteridge is a Research Fellow with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Sweden. SEI has published several policy briefs on the drivers behind the approach of BASIC countries to climate negotiations (available here) and a forthcoming report, “Together Alone: BASIC countries and the climate change conundrum” will be published in mid-2011.

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