Newsmaker – Where there’s a Wills, there’s a way

2011-11-26 17:41

Alf Wills is a man on a mission towards a green future. So passionate is he about his beliefs that he has spent about R25 000 to transform his Mafikeng home into an environmentally friendly abode.

“No more stoves, no air conditioner – just gas,” his voice booms through the speaker phone when we speak on Thursday afternoon.

He’s quickly retreated to his Durban hotel room between meetings ahead of the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The conference, which is part of global efforts to save the planet from pollution that is fast leading to drastic climate change, kicks off in Durban tomorrow and runs until December 9.

Wills, a deputy director- general in the environmental affairs department, is chief negotiator for South Africa’s position at COP17.

He says he’s trying his best to make a small contribution to creating a clean environment by personally ensuring he reduces carbon emissions.

Before he bought his latest car, he did extensive research on vehicles with a low carbon footprint.

“I’ve got the most efficient diesel car in South Africa,” he says about his 2-litre German machine. “It’s the most efficient car, far more efficient than a hybrid.”

As the man responsible for pushing the green agenda, does he lead by example?

“Yes, I do. I’ve just converted my whole house. No more electric powered geysers. I’ve got gas geysers. I’ve got a gas stove, no air-conditioner,” he says.

An ecologist by training, Wills says he got into the world of climate change politics by “accident”.

But there is an unmistakable hint of satisfaction in his voice when discussing his work and role in COP17.

“It’s very satisfying to be able to negotiate agreements which support the development and improvement of quality of life for South Africans.

“That’s the reason I joined the public service and if I can contribute in some small way, I’m happy to do so,” he says.

South Africa goes into the conference as the continent’s leading polluter and among the world’s top 20 countries with the highest carbon emissions.

Isn’t this embarrassing, as the host country of a conference that seeks to reverse man’s negative impact on the environment?

“No,” he says. “Why should we be embarrassed?”

He explains that South Africa finds itself in this position as a result of the decision in the 1970s and 80s to embark on a process of getting oil from coal through Sasol, a system that remains to date.

“When the world was experiencing the oil shock and going through major economic restructuring to improve their efficiency and reduce their reliance on oil, South Africa went the other way, because under the apartheid regime the fundamental issue was self-reliance.”

“We need not be ashamed of where we are. We just need to acknowledge that we have a legacy, we have a history that put us where we are. But we have a moral and legal obligation to address our country’s emissions,” he says.

South Africa has set itself the target of reducing carbon emissions by 34% by the year 2020 and 42% by 2025.

However, global trends indicate that most people are moving from rural areas to the cities in search of better economic opportunities.

This is likely to result in further strain on the environment with an increase in vehicles and use of electricity.

But, says Wills, those who stand to suffer from the effects of climate change are the poor.

“Whether you are in a rural area or urban area is immaterial. The impact will be felt by those who don’t have sufficient resources to adapt to the impact.

“Rich people can just buy an air conditioner if it gets too hot, they can buy food, they can buy health services, so the people most vulnerable to climate change are the poor,” Wills explains.

Among them will be people who produce their own food, such as rural subsistence farmers. “If their crop fails because of floods or lack of rainfall, these are the people who are most vulnerable.

“We really need to create a programme that creates awareness and make available methods for those people that are vulnerable to adapt.

“We need warning systems to warn of a drought or a flood to enable those people to adapt. There is a lot of work to be done,” he says.

Wills says while COP17 won’t produce a “big bang” it will go far towards building the foundations for a green future.

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