You cant afford to be slow in an emergency

Posted on 17 August 2010
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By Heather Dugmore

“You can’t afford to be slow in an emergency. Act now for the planet.” – WWF’s call to reduce carbon emissions now.

No longer an alarmist cry, it is now essential that every country in the world reduces its carbon footprint to help ensure that the global average temperature remains below 2-degrees Celsius. Runaway climate change with its threat of mass species extinction is likely to be the result if we exceed 2-degrees.

The South African government has committed to a national climate change response policy and programme. This indicates that everything we do now has to be totally conscious of the environment.

In support of South Africa’s commitment, The Green Trust has financed a three-year National Climate Change Policy and Outreach Project.

“South Africa played an important international role at the 15th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Copenhagen last year, and we have a National Climate Change Committee, but we have not got our house in order domestically,” says Richard Worthington, WWF South Africa’s Climate Change Programme manager.

The 16th UN climate change conference will be hosted in Mexico at the end of this year, and 2011’s conference will be hosted in South Africa.

“As Africa’s highest emitter of carbon, we have a lot to do between now and then. South Africa will need to step up our commitment to transform to a low carbon economy and start implementing all the processes required to adapt to and mitigate climate change,” explains The Green Trust’s climate change project leader and WWF’s national climate change officer, Louise Naudé.

A wide range of climate change projects need to be implemented – from helping communities to conserve the natural environment to helping farmers diversify their crops to cope with climate variability to establishing major renewable energy plants, notably solar and wind.

“At this stage South Africa does not have enough skilled people to implement renewable energy solutions,” says Naudé. “The Green Trust’s project is helping to address this issue by facilitating stakeholder participation from all sectors. We are engaging with everyone from parliamentarians to Eskom to our rural and agricultural populations to organised labour to the youth to the business sector.”

The Green Trust has already financed many community-based conservation and education projects aimed at conserving ecosystems and threatened resources like water, which is all part of combating climate change. This dedicated climate change project adds to its inroads.

The starting point is a focus on energy, which accounts for 80% of our country’s carbon emissions. South Africa is very carbon intensive, mainly because Eskom electricity comes from coal-fired plants and because Sasol uses a coal to fuel process. When you burn coal you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas; these gases lead to global warming.

The South African government has committed to reducing our carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025 off its Growth Without Constraints trajectory.

“The challenge in South Africa as a developing nation is that we still see huge disparities between the rich and the poor, where, for example, 27% of our population does not have access to electricity,” continues Naudé. “It’s obvious that we need to work on uplifting all South Africans, which is why WWF-SA is calling for national clean grid energy for every South African home. Those homes that do not already have electricity can go straight to clean energy and the rest can migrate. This can happen fast if we prioritise it and if Eskom starts migrating from coal-fired power stations to clean energy.

“We are well aware that thousands of jobs are dependent on coal, and if we are going to re-engineer our economy away from coal then we need to train the labour force in clean energy skills,” says Naudé who is liaising with labour as a priority focus of this project.

The review of South Africa’s white paper on renewable energy, which is currently being assessed, will set targets for renewable energy, to be published in November. “For this reason we are calling for the government to postpone the proposed Kusile coal-fired plant in Witbank, and investigate clean energy alternatives such as solar and wind, both of which South Africa has in abundance.

“There is little willingness to address this yet and too much finger pointing between Eskom and the government. Eskom also keeps saying that the purchasing of competitive, independent renewable energy into the grid is imminent but they have been saying this for some years. To overcome this impasse, the parastatals and government departments such as the Department of Energy and the Department of Environmental Affairs need to start collaborating,” comments Naudé.

“Fortunately we do have a government that acknowledges these issues and is committed to solving them in a climate friendly way. What is also encouraging is that some government policy documents acknowledge that human upliftment and environmental sustainability are intrinsically interlinked.”

The Department of Environmental Affairs is currently developing the National Strategy for Sustainable Development (NSSD), the National Green Economy Strategy (NGES) and the National Climate Change Response Policy (NCCRP).

One of the mandates of The Green Trust project is to offer input on these strategies and policies.

“In Africa one of the greatest problems linked to climate change is going to be a shortage of clean water. Water, we well know, is life, and water issues have a direct effect on agricultural yields. When agricultural yields drop, food security is threatened,” Naudé explains.

Areas affected by drought will increase in extent while areas with high rainfall will be at increased risk of floods. Both impact on ecosystems, as does temperature increase. Temperature and water changes affect health issues, such as the spread of diseases like malaria, which could move south.

Business will also be directly affected in a great many ways.

“Because we are a carbon intensive economy there is a lot of carbon embedded in the products we produce and export. For example, electricity from coal is used in the production of wine and fruit. Consumers in industrialised countries are demanding low carbon footprint products, and import taxes could well be imposed on high carbon products, which means many of our exports could become uncompetitive,” continues Naudé.

“Another issue that companies have not been taking into consideration when working out their profits is environmental costs. For example, the fact that a business is polluting the atmosphere or a river system was not taken into consideration in the past. This is changing and all environmental issues will need to be accounted for in company financial statements.

“The sooner we start shifting to a low carbon economy the better for all. The sooner we invest in the clean energy sector and migrate from the sunset coal industries, the better for all. As South African citizens, as participants in business, industry, agriculture and all spheres of government, we have a collective responsibility to combat global warming and to defend ourselves from its effects.”

Five, ten or twenty years from now it may be too late to say: “We could have stopped catastrophic climate change but we didn’t.”

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