Developing countries are frustrated by having to limit industrial expansion to avoid pollution, International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Thursday.
"There is a fundamental unfairness to the climate change problem," she said.
She was speaking in Pretoria at the announcement of the public enterprises department's climate change policy framework for state-owned companies, and the signing of the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC).
"Countries with high standards of living are mostly responsible for the rise in greenhouse gases, and especially the early industrialised nations from Europe, North America and Japan."
Nkoana-Mashabane said these countries created their wealth on the back of vast amounts of greenhouse gases being released unchecked, long before the likely consequences were understood.
"Developing countries fear that they will have to curtail their own fledgling industrial activities, because there would be no choice."
She said the developing world was frustrated because its growth was being hampered by "those who have a historical responsibility for polluting" the universe.
The minister said climate change was "very central" on the global agenda, as it contributed immensely to poverty.
"We have the enemy called climate change and the historic enemy of how development patterns have been taking place in our country," Nkoana-Mashabane said.
"For us to combat and fight poverty, whatever effort we come up with, it gets negated by the negative effects of climate change."
Senior officials from Eskom, SA Airways, Transnet, SA Express, arms manufacturer Denel, diamond miner Alexkor, telecommunications company Broadband Infraco, and the SA Forestry Company signed the UNGC.
Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba said the policy framework was meant to get the companies to reduce their carbon emissions.
South Africa's industrial economy was energy-intensive and coal-dependent, and the country was ranked one of the 30 largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.
The UNGC is a voluntary corporate citizen initiative, involving, among others, thousands of businesses from every continent. Businesses bound by the UNGC file annual progress reports to the global institute.