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Speech by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič at the University of Pretoria, South Africa


Thank you for your friendly hospitality and warm welcome!

Ladies and gentlemen,

My visit to your country is very special to me, and I am delighted to start my visit to Africa here in this great nation. For me personally, it feels good to be back on African soil, a continent where I used to live when serving as a diplomat, in neighbouring Zimbabwe. It was there that my daughter was born, now a student herself, probably around the age of most of you sitting here. My years in Africa have attached me to the African continent and its magnificent and rich culture. I therefore feel very honoured to share some thoughts with you today.

As a professional diplomat, I have always been inspired by the South African transition from apartheid to democracy, from the years of embargo to becoming an influential voice on international fora. I come from Slovakia, a country which gained democracy in the early 1990's, which has gone through a major political transition, and which now enjoys the fruits of regional integration. Sounds familiar?

Nowadays, both South Africa and all EU members have embraced democratic values: celebrating cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity; defending the rule of law and promoting peace and human rights around the world. We have more in common than one might think.

Today, I am here in my capacity as the Vice President of the European Commission, in charge of what we call in Europe the 'Energy Union'. This highly-ambitious project aims to transition our generation and consumption of energy into a new model, one which is sustainable, secure, and caters for all. The project is at the heart of the European Union's political agenda but it is outwards looking, involving our partners around the world. As you know, in a globalised economy, energy has no borders. What happens in one part of the world has a great impact on others. When it comes to climate action - that is all the more true!

I came to South Africa to discuss what we are doing in Europe, what you are doing here and how we can both do it better – together. Both Europe and South Africa are important players in this game, we in Europe are the largest energy importer in the world, and you are a major producing and transit country. Given the major consequences of our respective policies, we are bearing a great responsibility on our shoulders. And it is that responsability that I would like to talk about, doing the right thing before it is too late.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you all know, on Saturday we will all celebrate the Nelson Mandela International Day, which was set by the UN as a day for humanity to cherish and celebrate the legacy of this great man. One of the things that made the late Nelson Mandela a remarkable leader who changed the face of history was his deep conviction that any man-made reality is reversible, even if it seems carved in stone. He often said that phenomena like poverty, slavery and apartheid were created by man and therefore could also be removed by actions of us, human beings. I would like to borrow the same logic, in paraphrase to climate change.

My friends, there is no greater risk to humanity today than global warming. It is not a hypothetical theory about what might happen in some years from now. No, it is a reality which is already affecting all of us, in different ways, around the world. We are facing more and more severe natural disasters, pollution-related diseases, forces new flows of migration sometimes causing new conflicts to erupt. The tragic irony is that the most vulnerable societies in developing countries are those who are most exposed to the perils of climate change.

This is a wakeup call for all of us. And I say 'all of us' because America cannot solve climate change. China cannot solve climate change. Europe cannot solve climate change. No single country can make it on its own. This is bigger and more complex than any challenge humanity has known before. It thus requires a coordinated solution, one which involves all countries, all sectors, all segments of society, without exclusions.

When it comes to Africa, the importance of fighting climate change is far more than symbolic. In fact, it is among the regions which will suffer its consequences the most unless we act now. The international community is trying to limit global warming at a 2° Celsius average; yet, for some regions in Africa this will mean up to 3-4 degrees which could have catastrophic implications for areas which are already close to a breaking point. I sometimes joke that when I moved from Zimbabwe to Canada I saw a temperature drop of 80 degrees, from +40° to -40°. But for some people these extreme temperatures are far from funny, they are a question of life or death. That is why there is so much at stake.

There is a wide range of aspects in which the EU and South Africa have already been cooperating in the fight against climate change. For example, the South African successful UN Climate Conference in Durban in 2011 (COP 17) paved the way to the COP 21 conference in Paris this winter. Your government did not only host the conference but was crucial in securing its positive outcome. In the end, all Parties agreed to work towards a legally binding climate Agreement in 2015, to enter into force until 2020 at the latest. This year it will be up to us all to follow up and make it happen.

I know some countries are less proactive. Some might even be complacent, thinking they have more urgent problems to solve first, that they cannot  tackle climate-change, or at least not now. These countries must realise that economically, the price of failing to tackle climate change is far greater than that of implementing climate policies. There are also countries which are genuinely interested to join forces but which are struggling to find the necessary funds to invest in climate actions. That is why the EU stands ready to assist in climate investment and finance. In 2013, the total public funding for international climate action from the EU and its Member States stood at €9.5 billion.  And we remain committed to mobilise our fair share of the $100 USD billion per year by 2020, from public and private sources, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation, as was pledged collectively by donor countries in Copenhagen in 2009. We do hope to see other donor countries following with similar action.

I am fully aware of the political difficulties to reach an ambitious binding and global agreement which involves all countries. There will be challenging negotiations among governments about the burden sharing of decarbonising our economies - until we find the most just and sustainable agreement. But in the end, regardless of what the agreement will look like - there will not be winners and losers. Either we all win or we all lose. Any way we look at it, we are all part of the same ecosystem, the only one we have.

With regards to our own commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the EU has set itself quiet ambitious targets, the result of very intense negotiations we have held among our Member States. But I am proud at what we have achieved: the EU is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% from 1990 to 2030. I know that your government has also made a clear commitment: to start decreasing its emissions level no later than in 2025. We are very interested to learn more about this plan.

But our role as two global leaders, South Africa and the European Union, does not stop at making our own commitments. As I mentioned earlier, even with the most ambitious targets, neither the EU nor South Africa can solve the problem. We must bring all our partners on board, we must convey to them the sense of urgency, the need to act now. That is why the EU as well as the French hosts of the conference - are highly active in climate diplomacy, inviting more governments to join in action. I had the pleasure of visiting Belgrade recently while the government announced its national contribution to COP21. I could see from nearby  what the process entails for some of our partners.

When it comes to our internal energy policies, both the EU and the South African government have come to realise the tremendous potential of renewable energy, not only for the environment but also for creating jobs, for providing affordable energy down the line and for establishing a new economic model where consumers have a central role. In that respect, I must say I was very impressed by the climate-relevant programmes you have put in place here, especially the recent quick build-up of renewable energy capacity and the innovative auctioning scheme you have set up for independent renewable energy producers. Some of the ideas I have seen here could be useful for us in Europe.

As for us in Europe, we have set ourselves the objective of becoming the global leader in renewable energy technologies. And I have no doubts that great minds of your institutions will also take up this challenge, a very dignified one! The fact that South Africa will host the International Renewable Energy Conference (SAIREC, 4-7 October 2015) just two months before COP21 in Paris is just another sign how serious you are about this challenge. Rest assured that I am not here to declare a competition; I will leave that to the market forces. I am here to tell you that there is great room for cooperation between the EU and South Africa in this field. This involves trade, investment, joint research projects, and development aid.

For example, we are already seeing the fruits of the excellent EU-South African cooperation on technology and research, namely under what we call the 7th Framework Programme for Research, or shortly FP7. Its successor, Horizon 2020, will also provide very good opportunities for cooperation in the energy field, particularly renewable energy research.

Let me conclude with a message to you, the young generation of this country; students who are about to join the labour force and are ready  to take over the torch of leadership. Your voice matters. As a member of the G20, a member of the BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), the African Union and SADC and as this year's chair of the G77 – the world is listening to what South Africa has to say. But also you, each and every one of you sitting here today: your voice matters!

If you have a smartphone in your pocket you have a huge amount of power. Use it and take part in the change: engage in civil action, in political discussions, and awareness raising – especially now, in the run-up to COP21. Write a blog, a post, shoot a video, share an article. Trust, when political leaders from around the world convene in Paris in December, they will be much aware of the sentiment on the street.

Thank you again for having me today and for making me feel so at home.

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