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Legacy or Lock In

Let us remember, on Heritage Day, that South Africa’s struggle against colonial and neo-colonial exploitation is not over. Now that Africa is being universally exploited thanks to global recognition that it is a mineral treasure house and biodiverse ark of the world, we must ensure that all these extraction operations are not only of temporary value to some but will also be in Africa’s general long-term socio-economic and environmental interests. An emphasis on renewable sources of energy generation must be a crucial part of our thinking. In terms of the chronic electricity crunch in the context of Covid and a debilitating environmental crisis, it is imperative to realise that a stable and adequate energy grid can only come about through a sustainable and steadily decarbonising system involving respect for definite ecological parameters and, via renewables, enable an expanding job creation program to empower a large and youthful work force .

The electric power crisis, and the plans for multiple Turkish ‘powership’ plants to be installed in Richards Bay and other ports, raise disturbing issues. We are faced with the dismaying prospect of Eskom’s entrapment in a costly fossil fuel dependent mode for a full twenty years to come. This would paralyse its capacity for transformation towards abundantly available and renewable sources of power generation. It calls for serious reflection on the orientation of South Africa’s energy policy. This country can ill afford an excessively extended period of obligatory fossil fuel dependence. Our energy minister seems on aggravating global warming in the midst of  a climate crisis that dominates and dims the economic outlook everywhere. The planet’s destabilising weather systems threatens food and water security everywhere, and South Africa is no exception.

We have seen desperately pressed rural communities fighting (and many persons killed) for their right to say ‘no’ to rapacious,  greedy and ecologically reckless mining operations  that leave them robbed and destitute in ruined land.  And now, off our coasts, there appear the foreign based sea bed mining companies, ready to capitalise on the plight of South Africa with no real consideration for the people who live here or the life in the sea or the life of the ocean itself. Any such consideration would have to mean refraining from ruining the ocean economy and its zones of protected marine life, as well as the growth of sustainable job opportunities. But those have never been the concerns of fossil-fuellers.

Many countries of course do not have our climate advantages and go along with anything that will yield more electrical power. We however are in the most favourable position of all African countries for plentiful solar and wind energy generation. Yet  our Government continues to prop up the highly questionable  Sasol industry at Secunda, actually subsidising the agent responsible for the single most polluted and toxic atmosphere on the entire planet.

Why is this crime against humanity and nature being perpetuated? Sasol cannot claim to be either needed or desirable. It is obsolete and sprang from an emergency maneuver by the apartheid regime under sanctions. Oil for oppression! Why are the funds consumed by this monster not channelled instead to renewable energy initiatives?

One notes with alarm the insinuation by the Karadeniz Energy Group of Turkey that its powership scheme entails a move away from coal and other fossil fuels. It avoids conceding that natural gas is also a fossil fuel, and is a dangerous greenhouse agent. As a rule natural gas contains around 90% methane. Like other gas-phase hydrocarbons, methane also contributes hydrogen-sulphides, which can convert to corrosive acid when the gas is burned.

While a gas energy generation safety net, on a temporary stand-by basis , may help overcome the crippling consequences of Eskom’s enforced load-shedding, it involves minimal employment opportunities. It’s a very costly and heavily industrialising process for any coastal domain whose fish stocks and biodiversity hold the real economic promise of the future. The Karpowership strategy involves tanker transportation of gas to the port after heavy ocean bed seismic blasting and drilling, and the gas must then be liquified in a separate plant by cooling it to an extremely low temperature (far below zero) for storage before being re-gasified in yet another unit, so that it can be pipelined for power generation by massive turbines before electricity can finally be fed into the Eskom grid. Natural gas takes electricity to produce. This investment of energy must be assessed against energy produced. Much more is involved than simply flicking a switch for ‘gas power’. On any extended time scale it would threaten the ocean economy, and produce major safety concerns for people along the way A real ocean economy is an economy of the living ocean, of viable marine life sanctuaries, of protecting a fishing industry and attracting ecotourism from around the world.

While the planet warms and warms, we must in our own interest as Africans mitigate all we can. Decisive mitigation can only be achieved by a commitment to transformative energy action. For the sake of Justice (socially, economically and ecologically), we must argue for a reorientation by the leadership towards a more Africa-focused policy that is not complacent about alien profits flowing out of the country. Leadership must, instead, be directed towards resource renewal and social regeneration. It is surely not acceptable that investment in Covid-recovery financial packages is still focused  on fossil fuels, while the truth is that energy renewables make better financial sense. As reported by Tunicia Phillips (Mail&Guardian, July 2-6, 2021) research shows that renewable electricity generation is already creating millions of jobs while saving businesses money.

For the sake of the economy and environmental justice we must curtail rising carbon pollution and reject the false arguments of the fossil fuel capitalists. Transformative action by our government would not only meet the ever increasing energy demand, but create jobs and boost economic growth by cutting costs.

“Phakisa”means to hurry up, but just as ‘fast’ food usually means junk food, hurried policy decisions could mean junking the land at the cost of the people. The promotion of gas as ‘cheap’  and ‘clean’ reeks of deception. Methane’s global warming potential is more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide. Our ocean can simply not absorb much more CO2. It is heavily polluted and in some regions already badly acidifying. As sane citizens of Africa and planet Earth, we must back away from killing the sea and suffocating ourselves.  We should like our heritage to be a human-friendly environment for a recovering South Africa. We say Phakisa towards renewable energy for a better quality of life. We say no when Phakisa means rushing into a quick fix for environmental degradation  and continued poverty.

Burt Roberts

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