Is SA doing enough to combat climate change?

James Green, SESSA Solar Water Heating Chair

In 2011 at COP 17 hosted by South Africa in Durban, a flurry of activity installing solar water heaters into low-income homes took place to show to delegates attending the conference. Four years on and not only has the socio economic uplift low income solar water heating programme been dead for nearly 3 years, (targets missed by 500,000) but all incentives to encourage consumers to switch to solar from energy hungry electric geysers have also stopped. Indeed all other energy savings incentives such as energy efficient lighting, heat pumps, and other industrial scale saving programs have been in suspense or terminated.

Consumer renewables, solar water heaters and rooftop solar PV, as well as energy efficient lighting (LED’s), heat pumps, the latest air conditioning and heating units, along with industrial motors and others reduce electricity consumption and with it carbon emissions. However encouraging such technology to be adopted by homeowners and business flies in the face of Eskom’s core values, to produce and sell electricity. Such electricity relies on coal, supplemented by a little hydro and nuclear. South Africa will inevitably remain a heavy emitter of carbons for the foreseeable future.

The large-scale REIPPP utility scale electricity generation through wind, solar PV, CSP, can all be pointed at as South Africa being responsible towards climate change. It is green clean energy, and on a global basis the programme can be heralded as a success, with 2000 MW contributing towards the grid, and more in process. The funding and investment of course comes from the private sector, both internationally and nationally, based on attractive investment models guaranteeing long-term revenues (and profits), through the Department of Energy, paid for by Eskom and at the end of the day by the consumer.  It was  a condition back in 2003 that South Africa embraced renewables in order to secure financing for Medupi and Kusile, both powered by coal.

In 2015 the effects of climate change are being felt by South Africa like never before. The highest temperatures ever recorded in the Pacific are likely (according to all the scientists), to result in a stronger El Nino, which will result in higher temperatures in South Africa and reduced rainfall in a country already being severely affected by drought in many parts. Seasonal rainfall across the SADC region is already late, and both Zimbabwe and Zambia are reeling from protracted load shedding from limited hydro output at Kariba. 

The magic 2 °C target figure would appear to be close to being breached. Some scientists already argue that this rise in temperatures has been a good thing, but if we exceed it, and in all probability we will, the opposite will be true. South Africa will probably suffer.

Does the climate change outlook herald opportunity for South Africa at COP 21. Will it result in additional handouts to “ developing nations’ based on the irresponsibility of ‘developed’ nations, or will South Africa as the 12th worst carbon emitter globally, although small in the world economic forum, be given stick? 

Certainly if one compares Germany embracing rooftop solar PV, (over 40GW in less than 10 years) let alone other countries in Europe, South Africa’s approach to saving carbons by getting consumers to reduce their electricity consumption through renewables (only 120,000 HP SWH units and 50MW of rooftop solar PV), would raise eyebrows at the seriousness of South Africa to reduce their carbon emissions.  

Renewable energy generation in a country blessed with almost double the solar radiation of most of Europe is an obvious choice and likewise it should be for the end consumer. However if Eskom and resellers such as municipalities are obstructive, (why would they change?), South Africa’s carbon footprint is unlikely to improve, and the country is likely to suffer climate change consequences. 

Commitment to climate change mitigation requires carbon emission reduction on all fronts, not just large-scale renewables generation.