SA's carbon emissions a cause for concern

25th January 2008 By: Guy Copans

While China in 2007 became the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, per capita, South Africa emits three times more carbon dioxide, and overall, emits more than the rest of Africa combined, says trade and investment advisor for Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa Peet Du Plooy.

Du Plooy attributes this situation to the energy intensive and carbon intensive economic structure of South Africa, where the mining and industrial sector consumes half the national primary energy demand, while the residential sector contributes only a sixth.

“Most (90%) of South Africa’s electricity comes from coal, as well as a quarter of the country’s liquid fuel, in a process (the Sasol coal-to-liquid process) which is at least 60% more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional oil refining,” he says.

He also argues that the ratio of greenhouse gas emissions compared to per capita economic benefit, or the so-called carbon intensity of the economy, is among the highest in the world. This, he says, suggests that the financial gains of its emissions-intensive industry are low compared to this ratio for other countries, including the US.

Current global carbon dioxide levels are much higher than what they were prior to the onset of industrial activity, Du Plooy notes.

“Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were 280 ppm (parts per million), and have risen to 380 ppm today. Scientists estimate that these levels have to be kept under 450 ppm to prevent exceeding two degrees of increase in the global mean temperature above pre-industrial levels, which would lead to dangerous, irreversible climate change.”

Du Plooy says that higher greenhouse levels have led to higher temperatures, or ‘global warming’, resulting in more severe weather events such as droughts and storms which are referred to as ‘climate change’. Some critics of the concept of ‘global warming’ say that measurements of rising temperature levels do not take into account that temperature measurements in years gone past were conducted with outdated equipment or that there is a natural variability in the planet’s temperatures over millions of years. However, Du Plooy disputes these criticisms.

“Temperature comparisons are conducted through reliable ice-ore data. Water from ice melting in the summer freezes again in the winter, trapping air bubbles inside it. Ice-ore data therefore allows for an examination of the chemical make-up, including carbon dioxide levels, of air over 650 000 years old.”

Du Plooy says that the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) compiling its reports on that state of climate change relies on peer-reviewed scientific literature. 2007 saw the release of the fourth assessment report to which people from over 130 countries contributed over the previous six years. These people included more than 2 500 scientific expert reviewers, more than 850 contributing authors, and more than 450 lead authors, who have reached a consensus with 90% certainty that global warming is being caused by human activity.

He says that rumours and misinformation that have historically contributed to sowing doubt among people about the validity of human-induced climate change, have been a tactic of special interest groups who capitalise on a tendency by individuals to “grab at straws” in the face of a challenge to old ways of living. He notes that Dr Marc Davidson of the University of Amsterdam has documented the similarity of defensive postures and rationalisation on fossil fuels in the twenty-first century, to that of slavery in the eigjhteenth century. Tangible success in a post-carbon economy, such as the demonstration of large-scale solar power and a transition to electric vehicles, will help win over these doubters, he adds.

Carbon dioxide makes up the majority of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and occurs naturally. However, burning of fossil fuels results in excess carbon emissions, and is the main cause of climate change, says Du Plooy, He adds that if burning of fossil fuels was to completely cease, owing to inertia in the complex global climate system, warming would continue for a number of decades. It would take at least 20 years for before mean temperatures stabilised, thus highlighting the danger of any apathy towards cutting emissions. He therefore maintains that society’s immediate aim should be to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions within the next five years and then rapidly reduce emissions by a third by 2020, with continued reduction up to 2050. Within this framework, attention should also be paid to protecting forests, which would prevent further loss of the planet’s natural capacity to absorb carbon emissions.

Du Plooy says that renewable energy sources such as solar, water, and wind are viable alternatives to fossil fuel.

“Renewable energy is more efficient in making use of increasingly scarce natural resources, since, unlike fossil fuel or nuclear-powered energy generation, it does not require fuel on an ongoing basis. While these energy sources have a high initial capital outlay, they will ultimately be cheaper than current energy sources as resources like oil and other fossil fuels become more expensive."

He adds that since renewable energy relies on variable resources such as the wind and the sun, renewable energy in its raw form is not available continuously or on demand. Providing for base-load and peak demand will therefore require integration with the electrical grid and energy storage he notes.

South Africa has identified abundant renewable energy sources, particularly solar, and is starting to invest in technology and capital to 'harvest' these resources. State-owned power utility Eskom has completed the feasibility study for building the largest solar plant in the world, which will be able to provide continuous power for at least 60% of the day by using a molten salt energy storage system. Eskom has also called for a universal carbon price that would ensure that the cost of carbon emissions is paid by polluters rather than being transferred to society.

Initiatives to tackle climate change should not be viewed as an economic burden, but rather as an economic opportunity, comments Du Plooy. He says that the environmental goods and services industry, which includes renewable energy and energy efficiency, is worth about $600-billion globally, and is growing at a rapid rate. These industries also have strong job-creation potential and generally outperform traditional energy and carbon-intensive industries in this regard, he asserts.

Du Plooy is positive about South Africa’s future role in meeting the climate challenge. He says that South Africa has taken a leadership role in keeping the climate change agenda moving forward and bringing developed and developing nations, who are at odds over their responsibility for action as the latter claims that the former are historically responsible for most of the emissions, together for further discussions.

Du Plooy defines climate change as the disruption of the global climate system increasingly visible in the world today, as a result of excess greenhouse gas production, and a growing deficit of natural capacity for capturing carbon. In other words, carbon that has been safely trapped in terrestrial carbon stores, such as fossil fuel, over millions of years, is, by being burnt, being released into the atmosphere within decades as dangerous greenhouse gas, resulting in an oversupply.

Climate change is a current reality, not only a future possibility, maintains Du Plooy.

“Climate change is occurring right now. It is increasingly acknowledged as much more than an ‘environmental’ issue with links to global security, equity and economic growth. The North Pole is shrinking at a faster rate than scientists ever expected. Glaciers, which are a source of freshwater in many countries, are melting at unprecedented rates. The UK government now acknowledged the effects of climate change as a major contributor to the Darfur conflict. The region lies in a climate ‘hotspot’ and competition over increasingly scare water has been a major driver.”

Du Plooy is the South African representative of the WWF Trade and Investment Programme. The programme works in major developing nations and transition economies including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the BRICS countries) on promoting economic policy aimed at sustainable