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Climate Change Crisis: Confronting Development Aspirations

23rd September 2009

By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies


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In the past week the South African government made statements pledging its commitment to a fair deal being signed at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen this December. This has however done little to inspire confidence given the apparently contradictory government statements on the subject. The government statements were preceded by an affirmation by government spokesperson Themba Maseko saying that coal-powered electricity was the only viable source of energy. This came at the same time as the cabinet recognised South Africa's high emission of greenhouse gas due to an over-reliance of coal and made a stated commitment to taking responsible corrective action. The confusing and somewhat contradictory rhetoric offers us with an opportunity to reflect on important concerns around development that must now be addressed if South Africa is to present a coherent policy position on how it plans to tackle climate change.

In general, the intransigence on continuing along an unsustainable development path should be vigorously challenged. But South Africa is not only to blame in this respect. This thinking infects both developed and developing countries alike, which have pitted climate imperatives against a notion of development that is conceived as short-term economic growth, focusing on increasing Gross Domestic Product. However, in the case of South Africa, "If you plot the human development index versus electricity use per capita for all countries, it is clear that by comparison to other countries, electricity production in South Africa is not contributing to human development in the same way that it does in other countries. So we would be using vast amounts of electricity but there would not be a significant beneficial impact on human development," claimed Andrew Marquard of the Energy Research Centre at a recent South African civil society Energy Caucus meeting in Cape Town.


Moreover, there is a need to challenge our aspirations for highly materialistic, highly consumptive lifestyles that mirror those of developed countries. At the same meeting, Saliem Fakir of the World Wildlife Fund -South Africa raised questions about whether we should rather be working towards a dematerialised structure. "Do we want everyone to drive a car or do we want better transport systems? Do we want to reduce our dependence on oil and other high carbon intensive sources?" The questions raised are no doubt of a highly philosophical nature and link to fundamental causative factors of climate change. On the other hand is our adoption of market-based mechanisms like carbon trading, which involves the buying and selling of pollution credits, which only seek to address symptoms of our development dilemmas and climate woes. Of course they do more than this - carbon trading manifests the stark nature of unequal power relations in society as attempts to deal with the global environmental crises are at risk of being captured by corporate interests.

If we cascade into issues around technological alternatives we also start to demystify the nature and impact of development planning. Marquard again argues that we need to be certain about the technological pathway we embark on now because this is difficult to change. Thus when government refers to a "gradual shift to non-fossil fuel energy sources" they are not taking into cognisance the significance of new build programmes on coal (and nuclear) which will lock us into an high emission, energy intensive path. Of course it also belies the urgency of action required. Whilst the development of a strategic policy framework as suggested by government is an important step in the right direction it must not underestimate the impact of current actions in circumscribing long-term low-carbon development.


We must also face up to the myth of ‘clean coal' through technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a means to purge us of our fossil-fuel sins. CCS (and nuclear) are more or less within our current technological framework, which is why they are so appealing. Marquard is instructive again: Technologies like CCS have no co-benefits other than reducing climate change impacts, and they effectively increase costs of production by a third to a half. The viability of CCS in South Africa is still unknown but remain unchallenged as South African petro-chemicals giant SASOL launches the country's CCS Centre at the end of this month. Even if viability is proven, the non-climate impacts of coal production, for example acid mine drainage, would still occur. The state's resistance to exploring alternative technologies means that we have much untapped potential in renewable energy, especially through solar and wind sources, which is not getting the investment now that it deserves. The impact of this is that we "remain stuck in economic development strategies that remain energy consumptive and capital intensive" as Patrick Bond of the Centre for Civil Society contends.

Once again, Minister of Water & Environmental Affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica confirms that: "The only way for South Africa to realistically deal with its immediate energy supply problem, apart from demand-side management, was through the building of carbon efficient coal technology, in the medium term." In fact apparent throw-away concerns about reducing energy demand must be reflected on. If we carry on with business as usual our increase in greenhouse gas emissions coming from electricity production will have a staggering impact on the climate. Even the most ambitious scenario in the Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS) endorsed by cabinet last year describes a pathway of greenhouse gas emissions that keeps emissions to more or less what they are today. Our addiction to cheap energy has led to a massive misallocation of societal resources for decades and yet demand-side management is one of the cheapest ways to save electricity. Eskom's demand side management thus far and in the wake of the energy crisis of last year pales in comparison to the efforts on supply. More importantly, reducing demand, by drastically changing consumption patterns as alluded to above, is an effective way to reduce inequality in access to energy and in mitigating climate change.

These kind of fundamental shifts in approach also have implications for the way in which state enterprises are run. In this respect, the corporatist model of Eskom must change to a developmental one. Pressures to commercialise Eskom lead to other insidious by-products where the board grants CEO Jacob Maroga a 26,7% salary increase (an increment value at R5-million) even amidst a R9-billion revenue loss suffered by Eskom, a move which trade unions have described as "disgusting". Public engagement on the models of state enterprises, large expenditure on public infrastructure, and on energy planning need broad and inclusive public debates and discussion. We simply cannot have a situation where Eskom unilaterally decides our energy future and the Department of Energy simply gets drawn into it, as Liziwe McDaid of the Green Connection argues.

Perhaps a more serious introspective exercise which accommodates comprehensive, integrated planning and processes will provide both policy coherence and put us on a path of development that is in harmony with our natural environment.

Written by: Trusha Reddy, Senior Researcher in the ISS Corruption & Governance Programme, Cape Town




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