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SEI brief

Multiple identities: behind South Africa’s approach to climate diplomacy

This policy brief draws on interviews made in South Africa in September 2010, and is part of SEI’s ‘Emerging Economies and Climate Change’ series, including briefs on the BASIC group, Brazil, South Africa, India and China.

Aaron Atteridge / Published on 11 April 2011

Atteridge, A. (2011). Multiple identities: behind South Africa’s approach to climate diplomacy. SEI Policy Brief.

Key Findings

• In international climate negotiations, South Africa is widely seen as playing a “bridgebuilding” role between industrialised and developing countries. This is driven partly by a desire among the country’s post-apartheid leaders to promote South Africa as a responsible actor, a stable economy and a platform for foreign investment in Africa.

• President Jacob Zuma’s voluntary greenhouse gas emissions reduction pledge at COP15 in Copenhagen was seen domestically as the country “punching above its weight” in its contribution to global mitigation action. This reaction can be understood by looking at the domestic challenges the country faces.

• Economic and political constraints make coherent domestic climate policy difficult to implement. Expanding energy access has become an urgent political priority, while the dominant minerals-energy complex sets powerful corporate interests and potentially the labour movement against ambitious efforts to tackle GHG emissions.

• Relations with both Africa and major emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil are important influences on climate diplomacy and on foreign policy generally. Balancing such divergent interests is therefore challenging.

• These balancing acts help explain South Africa’s preference for using multilateral channels to resolve international issues, including climate change. Multilateralism helps soften any perceptions of working against its key foreign policy partners. It also helps build legitimacy for South Africa within the rest of Africa, where international political norms have been strongly influenced by a history of colonial intervention.

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