/ 21 October 2005

SA quivers in rising heat

South Africans should be quivering at evidence that desert trees are ‘marching” south to escape the heat, a scientist told a landmark national conference on climate change recently.

Quiver trees, used for generations by the San to make quivers for their arrows, are shifting towards the South Pole in response to rising temperatures, said Wendy Foden, a researcher at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi).

Studies at more than 50 sites in Namibia and South Africa showed the trees are dying off in the north of their range, towards the equator. This indicated climate change is having an impact even on desert ecosystems, where the effects of global warming are often assumed to be minimal because they are already hot and dry.

Speaker after speaker at a four-day conference in Midrand this week, aimed at establishing a national policy to combat climate change, told the gathering that if South Africa fails to tackle climate change in a global context the consequences for the country could be disastrous.

Foden and other scientists joined government ministers and officials, businesspeople and NGOs at the conference, which was organised under the auspices of the Cabinet climate change committee, comprising five ministries.

South Africa is ranked in the world’s top 20 worst offenders for emitting greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Speakers listed the country at number six in terms of emissions per person, or number one in terms of emissions per economic output per person.

A keynote speaker was Valli Moosa, former minister of environmental affairs and tourism, in his new role as chairperson of Eskom. The energy sector, including Eskom and Sasol, creates up to 80% of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Eskom is under pressure to almost double electricity production in the next 20 years, in order to support President Thabo Mbeki’s desired average economic growth of 6% a year. It is in the process of re-commissioning three coal-fired power stations — including one of the largest ever to exist — which are responsible for pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Moosa said industry supported government plans to reduce its reliance on coal as the primary source of energy by 10% by 2012. ‘Climate change is a major challenge and South African business is supporting many of the government’s initiatives,” he said.

Moosa was defensive of Eskom’s plans to reduce harmful emissions. ‘We are undertaking an intensive energy efficiency campaign. There is a body of opinion that says this is the quickest and cheapest way of reducing greenhouse gases. We are doing this despite the fact that we are in the business of selling electricity,” he said. Measures included energy-efficient globes and lighting, educational campaigns and investing in renewable energy research.

Various ways of making coal plants cleaner and more efficient were being investigated and these could be made affordable via an international initiative known as the clean development mechanism (CDM), Moosa added.

The CDM enables developed countries to assist developing countries by buying certified emission reductions or investing in CDM projects that mitigate greenhouse gases. Canada, Denmark, France and Japan have expressed interest in buying credits from South Africa.

Environmental activists attending the conference this week were critical of the CDM, saying it detracts from genuine efforts to reduce emissions. ‘The CDM, and especially the carbon market that permits trade in pollution rights, is a misleading ‘greenwash’,” said Rehana Dada, co-author of Trouble in the Air: Global Warming and the Privatised Atmosphere.

‘Carbon trading justifies letting the United States, European Union and Japan continue their emissions, in exchange for a small profit payout to dubious South African firms and municipalities for reductions in local carbon. We should be making those reductions in any event.”

The scientists said that over the next 50 years hotter and drier conditions could reduce the area covered by the current biomes in South Africa by 35% to 55%. Maize production, particularly in the drier western regions, will be reduced by as much as 20% and small-scale farmers will bear the brunt of floods, drought and other extreme weather events.

Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk pointed out that climate change could lead to provinces such as Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West, KwaZulu-Natal and even Gauteng becoming malaria zones by 2050. The number of South Africans ‘at high malaria risk” may quadruple by 2020 — at an added cost to the country of between 0,1% and 0,2% of gross domestic product.

Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry Buyelwa Sonjica said changes in rainfall and temperature could raise evaporation rates by 10% to 20%, drying out the soil and leading to reduced flow in rivers.

One scientist told the conference that species have three choices when confronted with climate change: die, adapt or migrate.

But Sanbi’s Foden, talking about the impacts of climate change in arid areas, said this did not help the quiver trees, many of which are more than 150 years old. ‘If you’re a plant, quite literally you are stuck,” Foden said.

Changing the climate

South African industry could benefit by up to R2,5-billion if access to the controversial clean development mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol is improved, said Canada’s ‘climate change ambassador”, Jean Bilodeau (right).

In late November, Canada will host the first meeting of parties since the Kyoto Protocol — aimed at reducing international climate change-causing pollution — came into effect in February. This week’s national convention in Midrand was partly aimed at formulating a South African climate change policy to take to the Canadian meeting.

‘No country can solve the problems of climate change by itself; we need a multilateral, innovative approach,” said Bilodeau.

The CDM enables developed countries to trade in emission reduction projects in developing countries. Critics say it detracts from genuine efforts to reduce harmful greenhouse emissions.

Bilodeau said strengthening the CDM process by providing professional oversight and stable funding would be one of the aims of the meeting in Montreal in November. ‘Incentives will be used to encourage developing countries to participate.”

Another aim will be to start planning beyond 2012, when the Kyoto agreements come to an end. Kyoto committed developed countries to reducing their greenhouse gases emissions to below 1990 levels.

Classified as a developing country, South Africa is not obligated by the Kyoto targets and timetables, but it has set its own voluntary targets — including a 15% reduction in industrial greenhouse gases and a 12% improvement in energy efficiency by 2015. — Fiona Macleod

Eskom’s nuclear energy plans to be restarted

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism has ordered Eskom to restart the environmental impact assessment (EIA) process for its nuclear energy plans from scratch.

Eskom, which is driving the development of pebble-bed modular reactors (PBMRs), recently applied to the department to increase the output of its demonstration plant from 302MW to 400MW. The department last week ruled that the resultant changes could not be dealt with in an addendum to the previous EIA report and a new application by Eskom must be submitted.

But while this ruling has placed an obstacle in the path of PBMRs, another is being lifted: the minister of minerals and energy has submitted for Cabinet approval a radioactive waste management policy that includes spent nuclear fuel. Having such a policy in place is one of the preconditions for the PBMR.

Nuclear power as an energy option was not a big topic at the climate change conference, though one session on the topic, presented by the Department of Minerals and Energy, raised heated debate.

Environmental lobby group Earthlife Africa took the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to court earlier this year after it approved the original EIA for the PBMR. The Cape High Court ruled that the EIA process was fatally flawed and the approval was overturned.

Said Earthlife spokesperson Olivia Andrews this week: ‘We welcome the government’s decision of taking the PBMR proposal back to the drawing board. We hope that this time the correct process will be followed and that the consultants Eskom uses can truly be called independent.”

Minerals and energy officials were loath to reveal exact details of the waste policy submitted to Cabinet, but earlier drafts indicate it proposes storing nuclear waste in available storage facilities and burying it. — Fiona Macleod