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Carbon Tax in South Africa: Call for Participation

Why should you and your business care about the carbon tax?

There is no doubt that South Africa, along with the rest of the world, is at the start of a long and inevitable economic transformation where business must take place within the context of constrained resources. Similarly, the legal and governance environment within which business operates is placing increasing importance on understanding the effect business has on the environment, and on limiting the negative impacts of these effects.

It is within this context that there has and continues to be much debate about how effective the carbon tax will be as a tool to achieve the government’s green policy goals. This is especially so given government’s commitment to introducing the tax by January 2015.

The issues are complicated. The debate generally takes place at a highly technical level and involves questions like how this tax will actually drive sustainable behaviour and efficient energy and resource usage in South Africa, and the effect that this tax in its current form will have on the competitiveness of South African business. A number of apparently competing interests are at play – the South African economy is still developing, extremely coal-reliant for its energy use and a significant producer of carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, the growth forecasts for 2013 have again been recently downgraded by the South African Reserve Bank, and the rate of unemployment and resulting social discontent and inequality remains an enormous challenge.

The debate is a technical one, filled with climate change scientific and policy jargon and economic analysis. This commentary does not seek to answer these questions or debate the merit of the introduction of a carbon tax. Rather, with the period for comments on the latest version of the National Treasury’s Carbon Tax Policy Paper closing on 2 August, it seeks to answer some basic questions – why you should care about the carbon tax due to come into effect in 2015, what the purpose of the pending carbon tax in its current form is, and what it may mean for you and your business? These questions must be answered while recognising that, as a general rule, the carbon tax will increase the costs of doing business in South Africa.

What is the carbon tax? The tax puts a price on carbon. It aims to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and create a more resource efficient economy (ie. a low carbon economy) by penalising companies and individuals that emit more carbon. If you’re polluting to everyone else’s disadvantage, you should have to pay for it. It is hoped that the overall economic effect of the tax will result in an increase in the promotion of low carbon emission intensity sectors (industries and processes that have a lower carbon footprint). These include renewable energy, energy efficiency and a range of low carbon technologies.

How will the proposed tax work? A direct tax on sources of emissions is proposed to be payable above certain percentage-based thresholds. Emissions to be taxed include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. It is also proposed that the tax be sector specific and that it escalate over time. The policy paper outlines a phased approach to implementation between 2015 and 2020 and the agriculture, forestry, land use and waste sectors will be excluded from the operation of the tax during this initial five year period.

The design of the carbon tax will determine its effectiveness and its impact (positive or negative) on your business and the economy in general. Uncertainties around the design of the tax in the current policy paper and which merit further discussion and consideration include:

  • understanding the scope and design of the tax. Do you understand which sector your business or products fall under in terms of the proposed tax and how you will calculate the carbon emissions for your business? Will there be an exemption for companies emitting below certain levels of carbon from having to pay the tax? Will the current design of the tax mitigate against its negative impact on your business? How will it impact on your suppliers and customers? How will the proposed revenue recycling generated from the carbon tax benefit your business?
  • understanding how business will be supported in the implementation of this tax – what programmes and assistance are to be implemented, and when?
  • understanding the moving parts. How will the carbon tax work and be implemented together with already existing carbon taxes (such as the levy on non-renewable electricity) and other policies of government – some of which are still being developed (such as the carbon budgets, the mandatory reporting of greenhouse gas emissions and other general energy, transport, industrial and trade policies)?
  • understanding the impact on a key cost component of business – electricity and liquid fuel. How will this tax be applied to Eskom and the fuel sector, and how will this impact on your business as a consumer of these energy inputs?
  • understanding the offset arrangements available to limit carbon tax liability. In this regard business will have to wait for National Treasury to release its promised paper on the design features for the offset mechanism for comment later on this year;
  • preparing for the tax – understanding how it will be implemented, administered and monitored. Which government institutions will be involved and who will take the lead role in coordinating the implementation of this tax together with the other green policies of government?

It is clear that effective stakeholder engagement and dialogue is required if the carbon tax is to achieve its objectives and avoid unintended consequences. The voice of business (whether large or small) should be heard in this regard. So, what should you be doing?

  • read the policy paper here;
  • South Africa is still in the process of developing its climate change policy which will have an on-going and significant impact on your business. Get involved and contribute to a better information base for the design of an appropriate carbon tax. Question whether you understand the objectives of the carbon tax and whether the current design will have any unintended consequences for your business. Seek clarity on how the carbon tax is to develop after 2025, and the feasibility of your business complying with such a tax by 2015. Where you have concerns or uncertainties exist – make these known to National Treasury so that they can feed into the debate and design of the carbon tax;
  • link up with existing business umbrella organisations and associations (such as the NBI, BUSA , the ITTCC and organisations aimed at representing the interests of small business) who are well-resourced and are already engaging in the debate around the implementation of the carbon tax;
  • work to understand how the current design of the tax will impact financially on your business, and what the carbon risks for your business are – how these can be calculated, managed and mitigated. These risks will remain pervasive and only continue to grow.

Aimee Girdwood

Aimee has a BCom and LLB (cum laude) from WITS as well as a post graduate certificate in energy law.  She was admitted as an attorney in 2006 after completing her articles at Bowman Gilfillan.  She rose to the level of senior associate in the construction department at Bowman Gilfillan, before leaving to focus on environmental consulting in 2010. She has specialised in energy and sustainability work, which includes advising on energy procurement and generation related regulations, responsible investing code and regulations, the white paper on climate change, the guidelines for integrated reporting, the carbon tax policy and the ‘green building’ regulations. Aimee is currently undertaking a Masters degree in Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University.

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