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We’re not asking you to turn into a tree hugger, but going a little greener wouldn’t hurt either. Starting this month Leonie Joubert will be writing for us on environmental issues that affect us all, even George W. – regardless of how much he wants to deny it. Leonie is the author of Scorched, a vivid journey through Southern Africa as climate change sets in.

The problem with power

Leonie Joubert

It’s got to be a pretty nasty job, being in government. It’s particularly tricky when, for instance, you have to make decisions about how to get electric lights burning in every living room and kitchen in every South African home, while still sparing a thought about the pollution that’s causing the kind of fallout that’s finally managed to get even George Bush a little ruffled. So the intention’s been made clear – the government foot is pressing down firmly on the peddle of development, with the intention of speeding up our national economy to the magical six percent growth rate.

Electricity is the key to growth. It’s also a means of lifting at least part of the burden from the backs of our country’s poor, 50 percent of whom walk precariously close to the bread line. Hooking up even the poorest homes to the national grid will allow kids to do their homework at night with better lighting; mothers will have more time on their hands, having been spared the toil of stoking cooking fires all day. Rural industries can move into the industrial age.

But here’s the big nasty. Per capita, our greenhouse gas (ghg) production averages at 3.5 times the average for the developing world. We produce roughly half of Africa’s total ghg emissions with our energy-intensive economy, where most of our energy comes from chucking cheap, dirty coal down the chutes of our national power stations. We produce more than half of Africa’s electricity – 90 percent from coal – and use more than half of that ourselves.

If we keep on, business as usual, South Africa will quadruple its ghg emissions by 2050. Here’s another big nasty. Behind all the grand promises of growth and poverty alleviation, and the promises of bringing renewables into the “energy mix”, is a monstrous elephant in the corner of the room. Coega. Well, more specifically the aluminium smelter at Coega. The government has cosy’d up to a Canadian company by offering subsidised electricity to run the smelter – 1 350 megavolt amps capacity which activists say will allow it to use more than that of a small city. Brick by brick, these kinds of developments are going to escalate electricity demands. And this in the midst of an energy crisis.

If our economy continues accelerating towards the megawatt version of the sound barrier, will that thundering noise outside be a sonic boom, or the sound of an environmental crisis crashing and burning?

Fact file

The World Resources Institute says:

  • United States: 5% of the world’s population, produces 20% of greenhouse gas pollution
  • China: 20% of the global population; produces nearly 15% of emissions
  • South Africa comes in with a “mere” 1.23%, but from only 45 million people, pushing our per capita carbon output to way above the average for the developing world. Energy-intensive mining, heavy industry and manufacturing account for 45% of our energy demands; transport 20%; residential demands consume 10%; smaller amounts go to commerce, agriculture and a few other sectors.

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