From dirty energy to a climate friendly economy?

Wednesday, 11 February, 2009 - 12:20

There is much focus on the debates about South Africa’s plans to deal with the climate change. Government's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 has also been seen as commendable, as it would be an incredible achievement for South Africa, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter on the African continent, with 73 percent of African emissions. Victor Munnik and David Hallowes look at some of the issues in the debate.

"South Africans have been asked to participate in debates about the country's plans to deal with climate change. Victor Munnik and David Hallowes look at some of the issues in the debate."

The world has already overshot the safe target for the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere according to US climate scientist James Hansen. The latest news confirms the warning. Arctic sea ice is melting much faster than expected and methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is now bubbling up through the sea north of Russia as the permafrost melts and releases trapped gasses. Scientists have long warned that such developments could "flip" the earth into much faster, catastrophic climate change.

In these circumstances, it is tempting to rejoice in the news that the South African cabinet has decided to take climate change seriously. In July, cabinet adopted a vision that by 2030 the country would start reducing its greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms. If the vision holds true, the economy will be transformed from the second most energy intensive economy in the world (after Venezuela), to a climate-friendly one. This would be an incredible achievement for South Africa, the biggest greenhouse gas emitter on the African continent, with 73% of African emissions. However, South Africa is already engaged in doubling its electricity generation capacity from coal fired power stations by 2025. So how does cabinet plan to square the circle?

The Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS) document was accepted by cabinet as part of South Africa's policy framework for dealing with climate change. This very interesting document, developed by a select group of experts, sets out scenarios for dealing with climate change. Two scenarios set the boundaries for planners. If we follow "business as usual" – our current development path - greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will quadruple by 2050, placing South Africa among the climate criminals. If we follow the "required by science" path, we must reduce emissions by 40% to make a credible contribution to keeping global warming below 2 degrees. 2 degrees is the target now accepted by the international community although Hansen and others have warned that 1 degree is already dangerous.

According to environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the plan is that GHG emissions should peak by latest 2020 or 2025, then stabilise for about a decade, and then start declining. Immediate and mandatory targets will be set for energy efficiency, along with a possible carbon tax aimed at discouraging carbon-intensive forms of energy (such as coal). Similar targets will be set for nuclear and renewable energy. Renewable energy production will be incentivised through feed-in tariffs, a measure that has supported rapid growth of renewables in Europe. 'Clean coal' technologies will be required for new coal power generators. Industrial policy will favour less energy intensive sectors. Ambitious and mandatory targets will be set for decreasing transport emission, supporting shifts towards public transport, and promoting hybrid and electric vehicles.

A national summit in March 2009 will consider these measures and inform South Africa's negotiating position for the next big international meeting, at Copenhagen in December 2009, which is supposed to decide the international climate regime for the period after 2012 when the Kyoto agreement expires. Final domestic policy will then be decided by the end of 2010.

As usual, the devils hide in the details.

'Clean coal' depends largely on 'carbon capture and storage' (CCS). The idea is that carbon from power stations can be caught and injected into deep geological strata. Despite ongoing research in South Africa the US and Australia, there is no evidence that this will work at the scale needed and South Africa does not, in any case, appear to have the right geological conditions. Minister Van Schalkwyk has already approved two new coal power stations but says he will not approve any more unless they are 'CCS ready'. If this merely means that new power stations have to be ready to one day be retrofitted with a CCS plant, it is a meaningless response to climate change.

The nuclear component of future electricity supply is 27% in one scenario, and 50% in another. Nuclear energy poses health and safety risks, and its claims to carbon-neutrality are questionable. The fuel enrichment is, for example, very energy intensive. But the immediate concern should focus on nuclear energy's economic implications. Nuclear energy is unpredictably expensive, as the PBMR's rising costs (now at R16 billion) have shown. The cost of the Finnish nuclear reactors being built by Areva, the French company favoured to lead South Africa's nuclear expansion, has already more than doubled from the 2.5 billion Euro declared in the Finnish parliament in 2003. On this scale, South African nuclear ambitions will cost more than the arms deal. It will become the tail that wags the dog of macro-economic policy.

Environmentalists will welcome the renewed emphasis on renewable energy, especially if it is embedded in industrial policy. Renewables have the potential to create many more jobs than coal or nuclear power. Thus far, however, government has been positively hostile to renewables despite their potential to create many more jobs than coal or nuclear power. This contrasts with government support for nukes – the PBMR is by far the largest and most secretive industrial support programme in the country.

The carbon tax will produce very large carbon savings, according to the LTMS, and gives carbon-free energy a price advantage. However, the costs should not be passed on to poor people who are least responsible for climate change. A doubling of free basic energy provision to households would provide a minimum protection in an economy where people's basic energy meets are still not met. On the other side of the equation, the carbon-intensive processes used by SASOL and other heavy industries will become unviable. This may provoke a back-lash from powerful corporations against any credible plan to reduce carbon emissions.
All the measures modelled by the LTMS only get South Africa two thirds of the way to goal set by its 'required by science' scenario. They bend business as usual development but remain wedded to it. The aim is still to achieve a 6% growth rate, even though growth is increasingly devoted to profit, producing fewer decent jobs and leaving more and more people in the cold. And the big corporates that defined South Africa's energy and capital intensive development still call the shots.

A true transformation away from a climate changing economy will require fundamental change towards a system based on economic, social and environmental justice, in which the economy serves people, rather than the other way around. It will include local control of productive resources, starting with energy and food, a move away from cost recovery in health, education and services, the dismantling of corporate power, zero waste, sustainable building and sustainable water management. Such a transformation is, unfortunately, only faintly prefigured in the LTMS.

The LTMS is available on

This article was first published in the Sunday Independent on 5 October 2008. It has been reprinted here with permission from the authors.

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