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When people around the globe turn off the lights for an hour on 28 March this year in celebration of Earth Hour, what does this symbolic gesture really mean in the midst of our current energy crisis, asks Saliem Fakir of WWF South Africa.
South Africans are used to the lights being switched off. After all, Eskom regularly turns off the lights on our behalf due to loadshedding. So, when Earth Hour comes around on the 28th of March 2015 this year, it will be in the midst of heightened awareness of the critical situation facing South Africa’s energy system.
South Africa has been celebrating Earth Hour, a WWF initiative, since 2007 and the movement has gone from strength to strength with more and more cities participating of their own accord. Motivated citizens have been most resourceful and creative in the way they have engaged in Earth Hour celebrations that now go beyond the symbolic hour of darkness.
This year’s theme is climate change and citizens around the world are being urged to use their power in persuading their leaders that urgent action is needed. Indeed, Earth Hour 2015 takes place in the context of three realities: The global movement for disinvestment in fossil fuels, the stuttering climate change negotiations that will continue in Paris at COP21 in December, and more locally, the urgent need to find solutions to the current energy crisis in South Africa.
Earth Hour remains the largest citizen participatory event aimed at social consciousness in support of the environment and to address climate change.
A case in point is last year’s WWF global campaign, under the banner of Seize Your Power, that urged institutional investors, like pension funds, to increase investments in renewable energy. The campaign helped influence a shift of over US$31 billion in energy investments globally.
Scandinavian pension funds have been leaders of the pack. Norway conducted its first fossil fuel investment review, resulting in recommendations for the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund to exclude worst-case climate offenders. All of Sweden’s political parties now agree that the AP funds should divest from fossil fuels. WWF-Norway and WWF-Sweden have been leading actors in these shifts.
In addition, most of the world’s multilateral funds such as the World Bank and European Investment Fund will no longer fund coal powered power stations. For South Africa, Medupi and Kusile will be the last coal plants that will receive a soft loan from the World Bank.
WWF in South Africa has been calling for the doubling of the renewables ambition by 2030. A sizeable portion of our own pension funds can play a bigger role directing more investment into renewables and other types of clean-energy technologies. The Government Employment Pension Fund (GEPF) is also one of the top 10 pension funds in the world. It sits on substantial resources.
Pension funds are what you and I own and we can have a say over how the funds are managed on our behalf.
All of us have a responsibility to nudge the managers of our pension funds to do more to change the profile of investment patterns.
Bloomberg Energy notes that the world was facing a renewable energy investment gap of US$400 billion beyond business as usual by 2017. To achieve a 20% share of renewable energy by 2030, in line with WWF’s vision of a clean energy future for South Africa, retirement funds will need to invest an additional R150 billion. Analysis suggests that current investment in renewable energy by retirement funds totals R11-22 billion, representing 0.3-0.7% aggregate assets.
Clearly, the bar can be raised further.
The energy crisis in South Africa should not make us all raise our hands in total despair. Yes, we have to fix Eskom and ensure Eskom uses less coal in the future. Changing our energy profile away from coal dependence must be the biggest task before us. It can be done and it will also go a long way to support the global target of 100% renewables by 2050.
That task may seem impossible but it can be done if we keep pushing the ambition in small steps. Our ambition should not be limited to supplying renewables for utility scale, but we can envisage a future where every household can be totally self-reliant or partially as technology improves and gets cheaper. All of these are small steps and contributing to the challenge of keeping our planet’s temperature increase within the 2º C range.
Thus, on the night of 28 March from 8.30 to 9.30pm during Earth Hour, regardless of whether or not Eskom has turned off our lights, we will be marking the symbolic hour of darkness to show our support for a new energy plan that not only seeks to solve our energy problems but also to make inroads into our climate crisis. Putting pressure on our leaders is one way of doing this.
To skeptics, Earth Hour may seem pointless, but symbolic gestures in a collective spirit are a form of soft power that can influence change and build awareness. Regardless of creed, ideology, and colour, we all need to work together to find innovative solutions, not only to the energy crisis but to wean us off our addiction to fossil fuels.
Our planet depends on us.