One Step Sideways 2 Steps Back – Elite’s Policies to Deal With Climate Change

by Oct 1, 2010All Articles

By Estelle Randall

Square or line dancing, as it was known during its mainstream revival in the 1990s, involves lots of movement, intricate new steps, changing partners, lots of dust. But in the end everybody always lands up in the same place they started.

The South African government’s response so far to the potential crisis of global climate change has been reminiscent of a line dance.

There’s been the flourish of fancy new steps. A new law is in the pipeline to encourage the use of safe, energy efficient and environmentally friendly appliances in homes, offices and factories and there are plans to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy planning.

The top-40 companies listed on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange will be participating in a carbon disclosure project to determine the impact of their business practices on the environment. The project started in 2000 in the United Kingdom and currently around 2 100 international companies take part.

Environmental management inspectors (also known as Green Scorpions) are reportedly cracking down on refineries and industries in the iron, steel and ferro-alloy sectors to get them to cut greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants.

As early as 1998, the White Paper on Energy acknowledged that benefits could be derived from the use of alternate, renewable transport fuel. And in 2001, a Cabinet-instructed audit of the transport fuels sector, carried out by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, concluded that the largest energy saving potential for transport lay in improving vehicle efficiencies.

Then there was the 2003/2004 White Paper on Renewable Energy. This set a target of 10 000 GWh of energy – about 5 percent of present electricity generation in South Africa – to be produced from renewable energy sources by 2013. The initial sources of this renewable energy were identified as biomass, wind, solar, landfill gas extraction and small-scale hydroelectric schemes.

All good and well, but bigger policy frameworks are being finalised which will take us right back to where we started.

In May, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk approved a giant new Eskom coal-fired power station to be built in Limpopo.

This despite South Africa being Africa’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and ranking as the 19th biggest emitter in absolute terms, according to the World Resources Institute’s last published estimate.

Government’s draft Biofuels Industrial Strategy was unable to situate social and economic development within a sustainable environmental management scenario. Seemingly ignoring the recommendations of earlier policy papers on energy efficiency in the transport sector, the strategy proposed achieving 75 percent of South Africa’s renewable energy target through replacing 4,5 percent of the petrol and diesel used for road transport with biofuels.

Feedstock for the biofuels industry should come from, among other sources , maize – a staple food crop in South Africa. Unsubstantiated assumptions were made thata conflict between crops for biofuels and crops for food was unlikely, that the use of food crops for biofuels would not lead to food price increases, or that biofuels themselves could fail to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

No account seems to have been taken of the environmental impact of growing crops such as maize, soy and sugar cane on the large scales needed to supply a viable biofuels industry. By the strategy’s own admission, South Africa has limited arable land – 14percent of its total land – of which 10percent is irrigated and this consumes 60percent of the national water supply.

Most worrying was the draft strategy’s mention that some consideration be given to environmental issues but that environmental impact assessments need to be “streamlined” as far as possible to ensure that South Africa does not “lag behind” in biofuels development.

The United Nations’ Energy Report released in May cautioned against seeing biofuels as a silver bullet. The UN report warned that, unless carefully considered, biofuels could fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lead to serious food shortages, push small farmers off the land and increase poverty.

Much less debated has been the move to increase South Africa’s reliance on nuclear power generation. Minerals and Energy Department Director-General, Sandile Nogxina is quoted as saying in a written report to parliament in May: “We are accelerating our work to ensure greater reliance on nuclear power generation.”

Also in May, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in Bangkok warned that nuclear power’s safety, weapons proliferation potential and waste remained constraints. The panel noted that nuclear power accounted for 16percent of the world’s electricity supply in 2005 and that it could have an 18percent share of total electricity supply in 2030, given its costs relative to other supply options.

The IPCC’s stance is in line with earlier global initiatives. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 excluded nuclear power from its Clean Development Mechanism, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2000 UN climate change talks in The Hague tagged nuclear power as a dangerous and unnecessary technology and did not give it greenhouse gas credits. And in 2001 a UN sustainable development conference refused to label nuclear power as a sustainable technology.

While it is true that nuclear power station reactors do not produce harmful greenhouse gases, other stages in the nuclear power chain do. The mining of uranium, its conversion to gas and its enrichment are particularly energy intensive.

A Greenpeace International-commissioned report on the economics of nuclear power released in May concluded that nuclear power was neither practical nor economically viable as a solution for dealing with climate change.

According to the report, nuclear power station construction could run up to 300% over budget and take, on average, four years longer to build than planned. Added to this were the substantial subsidies required, uncompetitive high prices and poor reliability as well as concerns about basic safety such as waste disposal and the decommissioning of existing power stations. Finally, the report put forward reservations about new, untested technologies in currently proposed projects.

South Africa’s Pebble Bed Modular Reactor has already cost R2 billion and is projected to cost another R11,3 billion before it produces any power. In 2005 the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor company’s own projections put the total cost of just getting the pilot up at Koeberg at R14,9 billion.

International financial institutions seem to share Greenpeace’s conclusions about the risks of opting for nuclear power as an alternative, sustainable energy source.

The African Development Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank and the European Investment Bank do not mention nuclear power stations in their policies and have not funded them so far.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) used to lend money for completing or upgrading nuclear power plants provided this was linked directly to the closure of high-risk reactors operating in the country concerned. The EBRD has provided only one loan for completion of a project.

In 2006, the World Bank elaborated on its policy of not financing nuclear power: “World experiences with high investment costs, time-consuming and costly approval processes, lack of sustainable waste disposal options, risks of major accidents – together with the Chernobyl disaster – have raised grave doubts about the future viability of nuclear power.”

The Asian Development Bank gives similar reasons for its non-involvement in financing nuclear power plants.

But the South African government hasn’t let the voices of disquiet about biofuels and nuclear energy break its rhythm. So, even as it takes new steps to develop cleaner energy, it follows the music that leads us to spot where we started.

Estelle Randall is the communications coordinator for Biowatch South Africa, an NGO based in Cape Town (visit

Read more articles from Amandla! Issue #1, July 2007

Share this article:


Latest issue

Amandla 92