Getting our greenhouse in order
DAVID LE PAGE: CLIMATE CHANGE | JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - Aug 27
In December 2011 the world will again be watching South Africa,
focused on an event that might be remembered far longer than the World
Cup ï¿½ the 17th meeting of the parties to the United Nation's climate
The hope of many is that the world may finally reach a just, legally
binding and ambitious agreement on cutting carbon emissions ï¿½ the
agreement that Copenhagen failed to deliver.
Putting aside whether that's likely, this means that an awful lot of
attention is going to be focused on South Africa and raises the
question ï¿½ what example are we, as the hosts, going to be setting?
Assuming we don't want to be shuffling about trying to avoid the
question, there are many exciting possibilities.
The most urgent step is a real commitment to energy efficiency. It is
the first and easiest way to cut carbon emissions, one that often pays
for itself, one that Eskom admits neglecting (Mail & Guardian, July
11), and for which researchers suspect there is immense potential.
Used to having some of the world's cheapest electricity, we have
become immensely wasteful.
We could make it illegal to build RDP houses that do not meet the
basic standards for energy efficiency much less human health. Women
living in basic "eco-houses" do not celebrate cutting their carbon
emissions ï¿½ they celebrate having children who are not constantly ill.
New revenue model
We could find a revenue model for our cities that does not depend on
the perverse incentives of keeping up water and electricity sales.
We can abandon the fantasy of the pathetic Copenhagen Accord, which
"sets a global goal of keeping temperature increase below 2ï¿½C above
pre-industrial levels, without jeopardising economic growth".
Because South Africa is prone to greater warming than the global
average, two degrees of global warming will probably prove extremely
expensive for us.
It will be impossible to turn back the clock on carbon emissions
without abandoning our obsession with GDP, which Nicholas Sarkozy, the
French president, has warned is "destroying more than it [is]
creating". In South Africa our current growth model is working far
harder for the rich than for the poor ï¿½ people living in Constantia in
Cape Town consume 14 times their fair share of planetary resources.
As the acid mine drainage crisis threatening Gauteng amply
demonstrates, growth as we know it is creating enormous problems even
before we take climate change into account.
Of course, we still need certain kinds of growth still. But it's time
to disaggregate it, to ask finally, as did Simon Kuznets, the man who
formulated the GDP measure, what kind of growth do we want and for whom?
China, that supposed evil behemoth of the eastern hemisphere, has
experimented with dropping GDP in some provinces in favour of a green
GDP measure ï¿½ and has seen pollution growth slow down.
We could reduce speed limits, cutting fuel use, making our roads safer
and quieter and reducing the need for over-heavy vehicles weighed down
with safety features. We could build on our new love for the Gautrain
and restore our moribund national rail network.
Perhaps our politicians could lead by example and start adopting low-
impact lifestyles. Cycling, cold showers, veggie patches ï¿½ the body
politic could only profit.
We had the courage to abandon the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, so
surely we can find the courage to abandon the Kusile power station?
Our current energy strategy has far more to do with the needs of big
industry than of healthy growth.
A deadly mix of financial and technocratic inertia and special
interests drives us ever more relentlessly towards disaster. A massive
roll-out of solar water heaters would save all the energy Kusile is
intended to supply and cost far less.
Renewable energy-based grid
Sadly, although Eskom knows how to build and manage big power
stations, it doesn't know how to manage the sprawling, messy, human
complexity of an energy-efficiency programme. It can't surrender its
totemic big power stations. It doesn't trust the notion of a
sprawling, decentralised, renewable energy-based grid.
It continues to generate misleading propaganda about the need for
baseload power, which is in fact a property of overall grid management
and not of individual power stations. Until the start of the current
electricity planning process, it had apparently never encountered the
ample research showing that renewable energy creates far more jobs
than coal and nuclear.
The way ahead is reducing energy use, using what we have more
efficiently and generating it from renewable resources. Our current
choices will only become ever more ruinously expensive.
"The world in 2008 invested more in renewable power than in fossil-
fuelled power. Why? Because renewables are cheaper, faster, vaster,
equally or more carbon-free and more attractive to investors," points
out Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountains Institute, which researches
We could even look afresh at our manic determination to go nuclear.
Building nuclear plants, as noted by the environmental freaks at
Citigroup Global Markets in November 2009, carries construction risks,
power price risks and operational risks "so large and variable that
individually they could each bring even the largest utility to its
If we really had guts and vision, we could pledge, like several other
countries, to become carbon-neutral. Those that have already done so
are smaller than we are, with far less carbon-intensive economies.
But why should we limit our world-leading ambitions to hosting sports
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