A carbon economy is not viable
Developing greener energy strategies is vital in South Africa as the cost of electricity and the environmental hazards linked to traditional power sources continue to rise.
The recent Mail & Guardian Critical Thinking Forum brought together science, business and green lobby groups to interrogate the possibilities of shifting away from producing energy that pollutes the environment.
An expert panel debated the topic, ‘More energy, less carbon dioxide”, at the Gateway to Robben Island the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.
It was a heated debate moderated by Judge Dennis Davis, who, at one point, likened the scientific debates on green energy and climate change to a ‘convenient moral panic” that ‘certain people are using to push an agenda”.
The panellists responded with thoughtful and practical ideas on what path the energy supply chain should follow to save the environment, benefit citizens and halt ‘greedy capital”. The debate was contextualised within the dilemma for developing economies such as South Africa.
Davis wanted to know from the experts whether a country with a relatively small economy needed to pump capital into green energy sources when funds should be allocated more directly to the social needs of the poor.
The issue of the cost of generating power was central to the discussions. The challenge was to balance development which uses green energy strategies with ensuring growth and attracting investment.
These are edited excerpts from the panellists.Stefan Raubenheimer is chief executive of SouthSouthNorth, a global network-based non-profit organisation. Raubenheimer is lead facilitator of the Long Term Mitigation Scenario Project on energy for the South African Cabinet:
‘We have a phenomenal challenge in South Africa. We need to power our nation for development and the battle against poverty. We need mainly electricity and liquid fuel to power our nation.
‘The current delivery of electricity and liquid fuels is almost 80% from coal. In terms of liquid fuel, 30% from coal and gas is through Sasol. The rest is imported, all R95- billion a year of it. These fuels keep our economy running. The problem is that these fuels emit gigantic amounts of carbon dioxide.
‘The whole economy emits about 450 million tonnes [of carbon dioxide] per year. Even though we are one-sixth the economic size of the United Kingdom, we have the same [carbon dioxide] emissions. Our emissions will increase four fold by 2050 if we continue this way.
‘If we get in step with the rest of the world we will have to be an economy without any coal [energy supply] by 2050. We would have to be an economy with at least 60% less liquid fuel in the system. We should urgently begin to consider another direction.
‘One should be risk averse. To be successful we have chosen to be competitive in the global economy but we won’t be successful if we choose a carbon economy. If the world reacts to the science in a prudent way we will have a world where the inherent carbon in goods will be a reason to trade or not.
‘Our kids are going to be the leaders of that world and a country like South Africa, burning fossil fuels, just won’t be popular any more. We’ll be the pariahs of the world. It’s not going to be easy and there aren’t simple answers.
‘We’re going to pay top dollar to develop nuclear energy. So we need to start with the things that we can do. We can start with solar water heaters.”Richard Worthington, manager of the WWF climate change programme:
‘Climate change is happening faster than any of the models predicted. We need to think about more energy services and less ecological footprint.
‘We haven’t yet evaluated our alternatives in South Africa. The opportunities of a low-carbon economy are fantastic. There are employment opportunities in utilising wind and solar energy, harnessing renewable energies, keeping value in communities and moving away from an energy supply system that utilises fuels for profit.
‘We can make energy supply more democratic, people and climatefriendly. We need more energy services for all people and industrial activity we want to pursue. We can do it but that means moving away from business as usual. That means challenging the people who are reaping the benefits from plundering the resources and thinking in terms of what is the best way to meet energy needs, and what is the best way to live within the carrying capacity of our planet.
‘A low carbon economy is sometimes seen as a burden. It’s not such a challenge, unless you’re sitting in a boardroom trying to persuade a bunch of investors that they shouldn’t look to their returns in the next three or four years, but returns that their children will live with.
‘This planet does have enough resources to support all the people on it and a few more if we are prepared to use them in a way that meets our service needs rather than accumulating capital and wealth.
‘Many of us are proposing that humanity does something extraordinary. We are asking for responsibility. We are asking people to rethink what is productive. Gross domestic product growth is not the same thing as progress. We need to move towards quality of life.
‘I’m not an environmentalist. I just want a sustainable economy. The environment is only what we need to make the economy sustainable. It just means that there’s less profit. Capital needs to be more patient.
‘If we can get global emissions to start to decline before 2020 that will give us a 50-50 chance to keep global warming down. The cost of using coal to access energy includes children living in a compromised environment. The cost for energy has a price that society pays. We have major challenges. We need to get the polluters to pay.
‘The average carbon footprint per South African is 10 tonnes an annum. But only 10% of the population is responsible for 90% of that.
‘Climate change is not a horror story. It’s an opportunity for humanity to move to a zero-carbon economy with better quality of life.”Dr Wolfgang Heidug, general manager and special adviser on carbon dioxide policy at Shell Downstream Services International BV:
‘There is an effort internationally to design policies for clean technologies worldwide. It is a chance to develop a policy framework for developing countries such as South Africa. We can incentivise clean technology. You can do a project in a developing country and you can get credit for that.
‘Energy producers need to take the cost of the environment into account. That way the cost of using fossil-produced electricity becomes more expensive.
‘To move away from [fossil fuels] you need the vision of a new cluster. It’s a non-linear process. You don’t know where you’ll end up. It’s not an issue that will be resolved over the next 10 or 20 years. It’s going to be much longer.
‘We need to communicate the benefit of technology to the public. But the big companies can’t do that because the public doesn’t trust us.”Professor Kevin Bennett, UCT’s department of mechanical engineering:
‘Developing economies are effectively world leaders in the use of renewable energy because they don’t have the opportunity to get hold of commercial energy. They don’t rely on large power stations. We can learn a lot from where we should be going.
‘What would be the way to get away from carbon? Renewable energy is an obvious option. We
don’t have intense renewable energy sources. They’re weak.
‘Why are we trying to build big power stations using renewable energy? Why aren’t we forcing people to put solar heaters on their houses? Why aren’t we using heat from solar or wind on a very small scale?
‘The developed countries went through the cycle from wind to coal to gas to nuclear. Undeveloped countries haven’t got there. They’re still sitting with wood. There has to be a mixture [of energy sources]. We have to have coal and nuclear. But I think we’re spending too much effort on those and not looking at the non-carbon options. We are totally blinded by this carbon fixation.
‘Carbon dioxide has increased in the past 20 years and the economy hasn’t gone up at the same rate. We shouldn’t be completely determining our energy futures on carbon dioxide. We need to continue with the idea of continued reuse of renewable energy, not necessarily those that need to be purchased from the First World.
‘Developing countries need to look at domestic applications. For the major parts of the economy we might have to go nuclear. That’s not a carbon-based option. We can’t ignore it. There are concerns around nuclear. But there aren’t going to be many other options.
‘We’re not going to drop everything and become completely renewable. We are going to be stuck with fossil-fuel power stations for the next 20 years.”