United Nations body the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) releases its fifth assessment report in Stockholm on Friday, giving the panel's prognosis on the state of the Earth's climate.
At the same time, Eskom plans to build yet another climate-killing coal plant, dubbed Coal 3, with a 4.8GW capacity. The irony is deadly.
With the full support of South Africa's Cabinet, Eskom is not only failing to act on the incontrovertible science of climate change but is also speeding us along the path to catastrophe.
Climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson says this gap between climate speak and inaction has been going on globally for 20 years. Recent climate summits simply deferred action.
Now Coal 3 takes its place alongside other destructive energy projects around the world, such as Bangladesh's 1.3GW Rampal project, which threatens the world's largest mangrove forest, and Australia's Galilee Basin port, which could destroy the Great Barrier Reef.
The IPCC's work represents a "unique combination of efforts of scientists and governments" and its regular assessments of climate knowledge have become the basis for decisions by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The fifth report of the first working group on the physical-science basis of climate change is part of the report, and is the product of two years of work by more than 800 authors and review editors. The other two working-group reports will be released early next year.
Each successive report gives more compelling evidence that the climate is changing for the worse. The fourth report gave strong impetus in 2007 to the UNFCCC's 13th Conference of the Parties in Bali, which agreed that action on climate change was required urgently and that delaying emission reductions "significantly constrains opportunities to achieve lower stabilisation levels and increases the risk of more severe climate change impacts".
Urgent global emissions cuts of 40% by 2020 – and 80% to 90% by 2050 – are needed, says the IPCC. Switching away from coal globally is a necessary first step to achieving such reductions.
We are looking at a global temperature increase of 4°C to 6°C if drastic action is not taken. This means a rise in sea levels of up to 1.8m, drought over 40% of inhabited land, hundreds of millions of refugees and half of all known species extinct by 2100.
To halt global warming at 2°C, which is already catastrophic, a study published in science journal Nature in 2009 says only 50% of overall fossil fuel reserves – oil, natural gas and coal – can be burnt in the period from now until 2050. So what are we doing building another mega-coal plant?
South Africa is the 12th-largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world because of its dependence on coal for 95% of its electricity. Eskom is the country's biggest producer of carbon emissions, which reached 228-million tonnes last year. The numbers for new coal development are thus confounding.
We have already committed to building a 10.1GW coal plant and will build 6.25GW more coal-firing capacity between 2014 and 2030. If we then add in Coal 3 at 4.3GW, we have total new coal-fired generation of 16.4GW to 20.7GW.
Yet the government has committed to a 34% decrease in emissions by 2020 in international negotiations.
Even if we decommission old power stations, which should and must be done, this only takes 10.9GW off the grid and means emissions won't decrease but, at best, will stay the same.
Climate imperatives alone dictate that the Coal 3 proposal should have been shredded quietly as a relic of industrial-age thinking.
Not only is Coal 3 bad for the climate, it is also bad for South Africa's wallet. Eskom will need to raise R200-billion for the mega-project.
The power firm is already spending about R240-billion on Medupi and Kusile, out of a R300-billion budget, to expand its generation capacity over the next 10 years. Financing those plants was difficult, and will be even more difficult and costly in the future. Eskom's credit rating is poor, making borrowing expensive. International finance institutions are moving out of financing coal – one is the World Bank.
Eskom wants to develop Coal 3 in the Waterberg, according to its 2008 Final Scoping Report.
Situated in the northwest of the country, in Limpopo, the Waterberg is known for being a dry region, but it has mostly untapped coal reserves. It is being pegged as the next coalfield now that the Witbank coalfield is near depletion because of the rapid rate of mining. The Waterberg contains 40% of South Africa's remaining coal reserves.
The mining in the area will probably be a combination of deep mining and open-cast mining; the latter contributes immensely to harmful pollutants.
The area already has the Matimba and Medupi power stations, and mining firm Exxaro and natural resources company Vedanta plan to build two 600MW coal-fired stations. Coal 3 will emit yet more pollutants, negatively affecting the health of residents in the Waterberg area and in Botswana.
As far as Coal 3 goes, Eskom says it is committed to "installing a suite of appropriate atmospheric emission abatement technologies to reduce its atmospheric emissions, including technologies to reduce oxides of sulphur emissions (flue gas desulphurisation), particulate removal (bag filters or electrostatic precipitators) and boilers that produce low NOx [nitrogen oxides] emissions".
But Eskom is applying for exemptions from national air-quality regulations and wants to delay the installation of flue gas desulphurisation at Medupi. This does not encourage critics to trust its commitments.
It is highly unlikely that there is enough water in the region for Coal 3 – Eskom is already complaining about insufficient water for Medupi.
Our biggest challenge is to see beyond projects such as Coal 3 and start investing in renewable energy solutions that are clean and quick to implement. – Trusha Reddy works at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg