‘New alerts highlight need for urgent climate change action’

Climate negotiators huddle during the closing hours of the COP17 UN climate conference in Durban, 2011. Pic: David Le Page
Climate negotiators huddle during the closing hours of the COP17 UN climate conference in Durban, 2011. Pic: David Le Page

Published in Business Day, 19 September 2013

PERHAPS, one day, an article on climate change will be written that tells us that things are getting better. Sadly, this is not that article and that day, if it ever comes, is a long way in the future. Though climate change has largely disappeared from the public agenda in South Africa since the 17th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban in December 2011, the problem itself remains stubbornly immune to fluctuations in media attention.

Two recent climate-change updates from the World Bank and International Energy Agency have restated the scale and dangers of the problem. The reports should make anyone younger than 50 worry about the future, because, on present emissions trends, significant effects are predicted in just the next 30 years. Some of the worst effects will hit sub-Saharan Africa.

There are a few points to bear in mind when either contemplating or skipping in dread past the predictions. First, global carbon emissions are still growing and show no sign of slowing down. Continue reading ‘New alerts highlight need for urgent climate change action’

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M&G: ‘Getting our greenhouse in order’

Published in the Mail & Guardian, 27 August 2010

In December 2011 the world will again be watching South Africa, focused on an event that might be remembered far longer than the World Cup — the 17th meeting of the parties to the United Nation’s climate convention.

The hope of many is that the world may finally reach a just, legally binding and ambitious agreement on cutting carbon emissions — the agreement that Copenhagen failed to deliver.

Putting aside whether that’s likely, this means that an awful lot of attention is going to be focused on South Africa and raises the question — what example are we, as the hosts, going to be setting? Assuming we don’t want to be shuffling about trying to avoid the question, there are many exciting possibilities.

The most urgent step is a real commitment to energy efficiency. It is the first and easiest way to cut carbon emissions, one that often pays for itself, one that Eskom admits neglecting (Mail & Guardian, July 11), and for which researchers suspect there is immense potential. Used to having some of the world’s cheapest electricity, we have become immensely wasteful.

We could make it illegal to build RDP houses that do not meet the basic standards for energy efficiency much less human health. Women living in basic “eco-houses” do not celebrate cutting their carbon emissions — they celebrate having children who are not constantly ill. Continue reading M&G: ‘Getting our greenhouse in order’

South Africa is dying of growth

[This article was commissioned by the Mail & Guardian in June 2010, but not published.]

We’re all on a ship. Let’s call it, oh, what the hell, the Titanic Earth. We’re steaming along at a reasonable clip, but there are… problems. The first class passengers are sipping champagne – but in second class, services are failing, while third class passengers, segregated behind armed guards and razor wire, aren’t getting all their meals. The ship’s engineers are running low on coal and tearing up the third-class decks and beds to feed the boilers.

The ship’s newsletter reports continuously on the speed of the ship, gossip and the deck tennis results. The burning of the floors and food shortages in third class get little attention.

This is our planet, and this is how we’re running it. The ship’s speed is growth, an economic measure beloved of conservative economists, big business and most politicians, but never intended to become the all-encompassing measure of “national success” that it has.
Continue reading South Africa is dying of growth

‘Fired up by cleaner coal’

Published in The Weekender, August 2009

I want to visit Eskom’s proposed concentrated solar power (CSP) power station, but after 10 years of faffing, they’ve still not actually built it, and South Africa is now watching as India, California, Spain and Texas leave us in the solar dust.

The hills are afire: gas from the UCG plant will be piped to the Majuba Power Station near Volksrust.
The hills are afire: gas from the UCG plant will be piped to the Majuba Power Station near Volksrust.

So I’m visiting one of Eskom’s efforts to make old energy a bit less damaging. Eskom is very comfortable with coal, but like many of the world’s utilities, they’re under ever-increasing pressure to use less of it and dial back their enormous contribution to global warming. One of their latest efforts to make coal cleaner is a pilot project for underground coal gasification (UCG) adjacent to the gigantic Majuba power station near Volksrust in Mpumalanga.

The idea behind UCG is that instead of first mining coal, processing it, then burning it to produce heat and electricity, you set it alight underground to produce a stream of gas that can in turn be burned Continue reading ‘Fired up by cleaner coal’