Global environmental politics is emerging as a key field for South African diplomacy and foreign policy, in which Pretoria is endeavouring to lead by example. Environmental summits and conferences such as Johannesburg (2002) and Copenhagen (2009) have been crucial stages for the performance of this role as an environmental leader, and in December 2011 Durban will host the seventeenth Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. There are also signs from within policy-making circles that ‘the environment’ is seen as a field in which some of the lustre of South Africa’s post-1994 international high moral standing could be recovered. However, tensions remain between South Africa’s performance and rhetoric on the global stage, and domestic development paths which continue to be environmentally unsustainable. The article concludes by suggesting that while the visibility and prominence of South Africa as an actor in global environmental politics is likely to grow, it remains doubtful whether this represents a sustained and committed new direction in South African foreign policy.