By Niranjali Amerasinghe
Following the UN climate talks in Durban can be a tedious business. Even for a conference junkie like me. There are times when the discussions get so mired in petty political bargaining that it’s hard to keep the bigger picture in mind. People seem to forget why they’re actually there: to find a solution to the biggest environmental threat ever faced by humanity. This involves making significant changes to the status quo, like transitioning away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy. There is no way we will limit global warming to 1.5oC degrees Celsius (a level above which impacts from climate change are expected to be radically more extreme) if governments continue to pander to the special interests of the fossil fuels industry.
Take South Africa, the host of this year’s UN climate conference. Last year, the World Bank approved a $3.75 billion loan to Eskom Holdings through the South African Government, of which $3 billion was for a 4,800 MW coal plant in Lehphalale. The project is under investigation by the Inspection Panel, the Bank’s accountability mechanism, due to concerns raised by communities. South Africa is constructing another 4,800 MW coal plant in Delmas, known as the Kusile Power Station. These two coal plants will be among the largest in Africa, and the world. And there are already several coal plants in South Africa that emit vast quantities of green house gases (GHGs) and other substances, which cause irreparable harm to the environment and human health. Also, let’s not forget that South Africa is among the top GHG emitters of the developing world, along with Brazil, China, and India. Building new coal plants will only exacerbate the environmental and social problems in this context. While energy access for the poor is a legitimate policy priority, there are cleaner alternatives. Moreover, the bulk of energy produced by these plants feed into industry instead of benefiting vulnerable peoples. A recent report by WWF demonstrates the dire situation of water contamination from coal mining and plant operations, as well as related water scarcity issues in South Africa. And a report by Greenpeace shows how bad South Africa’s addiction to coal really is. In fact, at a South African press briefing at Durban, reporters raised this report, questioning whether the Government adequately considered the environmental and health costs associated with Kusile. The response was far from satisfactory and little more than “we’re looking into it.”
South Africa isn’t the only nation with a coal addiction. There are plenty of countries, both developed and developing, who have vested interests in continuing to exploit fossil fuels – the concerns of the fossil fuel industry certainly don’t seem to be underrepresented at the climate negotiations. Discussions on increasing “ambition” (the language negotiators use when discussion targets) to reduce emissions are going from bad to worse, no doubt egged on by these interests. Negotiations on rules for the Clean Development Mechanism, a crediting mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, seem to be making more and more allowances for technologies that would benefit the fossil fuel industry. Is this really the vision for the future climate regime?
Of course, not everyone has forgotten this radical idea of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy to help save our planet. There’s been quite a bit of good old NGO action in Durban on coal. In the week before the climate talks, a South African NGO, groundWork, organized “Dirty Energy Week,” a conference to examine the problems communities are facing with dirty energy sources in Africa. And last week, in addition to panel called “The Dirty Truth About Coal,” Sierra Club and others hosted a funeral procession for “King Coal” to celebrate successfully defeating over 150 proposed coal plants in the United States. Victories like this don’t come often. It’s a good reminder that when the 99% speak out, they can certainly make a difference.