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South Africa’s energy policy and climate change hazards

By Antonio Ruffini, Editor, ESI Africa

The recent fracking issue in South Africa’s Karoo region involving Shell’s exploration plans for shale gas and the subsequent outcry that resulted in a government decision to suspend that process, reminds me of aspects of the climate change debate.

A year ago I had never heard of fracking. Recently I asked a geologist who has experience in the petroleum sector, but one with no particular personal, investment or career stakes in Karoo shale gas exploration, if fracking is as bad as claimed. He suggested not, referring to the size and depth of the drill-holes being such as to have zero influence in terms of water pollution. His words were, that in terms of impact on pollution of aquifers all this may as well be taking place on Mars and if we are going to use such standards we had better immediately shut down every mine in South Africa.

So, there seems to have been some overreaction, though of course there may be very valid reasons to be wary of fracking in the Karoo. Thus, while suspicious of the basis and logic of the arguments posed against it, I reserve judgement because I don’t consider myself well enough informed regarding all the parameters involved. It seems fair for the government to have taken a similar view.

Although I have been told the whole climate change debate is over and settled, I was uncertain about where I stood on the issue for many years. I have spoken with various people and have read a bit on the topic, and ultimately I remain sceptical regarding some of the suggested courses of action such the implementation of carbon taxes in South Africa.

Of course, by implication, it means that if I don’t believe we must respond with clear-cut urgency and take drastic measures to alleviate climate change concerns, I must be a dinosaur, a right-wing lunatic who must therefore support eugenics, public executions, and Uganda’s approach to gay rights. It bothers me how emotive and politicised the public discourse on climate change has become, and thus potentially very irrational.

At one level it is fairly clear. Humans through their activities are producing carbon dioxide and it is a greenhouse gas; thus humans have become a significant carbon source while at the same time helping diminish carbon sinks such as forests. There are arguments of responsible behaviour, expanding deserts in water-scarce regions and tipping point theories. This all sounds very plausible, but where things become murky is what we should be doing about it, versus, say, the supposed priority of lifting the majority of humanity out of poverty and thereby alleviating a number of very basic and far-reaching environmental issues such as human overpopulation.

What worries me is that humanity only has so many disposable resources, in terms of skills, funding sources, and enthusiasm. If these are misallocated, or less than ideally allocated, most of us will be the poorer for it.

I believe it is arrogant to assume that we at the moment have the ability to make the climate of our planet behave in ways we think suitable, though what we are watching is the infancy of a far-reaching attempt to achieve just that over the course of time. In some future time, as our technological evolution continues, it may well become possible. For now, though, the planet will look after itself, and what we really mean with climate change mitigation is that we need to look at how things impact upon our own comfort on its face. While it seems a quibbling point it does imply a very different approach to the issue.

Here the World Energy Council (WEC) position makes inherent sense. Instead of the way things seem to be going; where we (as in where prevalent global opinion appears to be leading us) have climate change mitigation priorities with some human developmental goals, we should have, as the WEC suggests, human developmental priorities that also look to mitigate climate change.

While I am supportive of technologies such as wind energy, it is not because of climate change issues; it is because such technologies are coming of age and becoming relatively cost competitive. I like solar and other renewables because of their potential, including for more distributed power sources, and of course renewables are good because they don’t rely on depleting resources. I am also supportive of hydroelectric options, both large and small, though for at least a decade large hydroelectricity, where Africa has massive unrealised potential, was severely slated internationally. I support nuclear technology, as well as thermal options where technology also continues to evolve. I support them all since I believe the more options and diversity of energy sources we have the better.

Mostly it is because I don’t want to live in the dark and in the midst of a sea of poverty and misery. Of course we want to have a nice environment and want to sustain our planet’s other creatures, and have future generations inherit a beautiful planet.

My concerns relate to the momentum that the global climate change lobby has worldwide and the fear that we may be making a mistake by following that particular herd too far as opposed to focusing on what our own priorities should be – like, say, trying to find means to achieve sustainable rural electrification on a continent where access to electricity evades a large number of people.