Cop17 has raised environmental awareness

2011-11-28 00:00

SEVERAL months ago there were many people around who had no idea what this Cop thing is all about. Perhaps there are still some who remain as ignorant as ever. After all, it is a minority of people who read newspapers and not many who listen to SAfm. If my family was anything to go by as it was growing up, television news was never a priority viewing choice. And, of course, we don’t always know how this imminent international event is viewed by people who live in rural poverty. Ironically, these people have an instinctive view of sustainability denied those of us who are comparatively affluent and middle class. We are wasteful, they are not, simply because they can’t afford to be. I wonder if in their various states of deprivation they have a view of those of us who have quite suddenly developed some conscience about wasting resources.

For many people, among them those with business interests, Cop17 and the associated hype has raised awareness and a noticeable degree of commitment that was not there before. In Durban, both the city and the Chamber, and other stakeholders, have made a deliberate effort at bringing environmental issues to the fore. We did not want thousands of visitors to find an apathetic business community. From the city’s point of view, a green cosmetic appearance is also important, even though the eThekwini Municipality is more progressive in this sphere than most others. We now have dedicated cycle paths and the mayor has undertaken to ride to work at least one day a week. Less conspicuous are the behind-the-scene activities that have been going on for some time and which reflect the dynamic beliefs of many senior municipal officials who have been on the green trail as a matter of principle and not to fashion a veneer for visitors to Cop. Indeed, the works of Debra Roberts, Derek Morgan, the KwaZulu-Natal Sustainable Energy Forum, the Durban Industry Climate Change Partnership, the municipality’s architecture division and a host of other people, bring justifiable credit to the city in ways, regrettably, that too few people know about. The establishment of the Durban Climate Change Partnership is a commendable step in the right direction and its effect will endure after the Cop visitors have come and gone.

In the national context, there is the unenviable challenge of explaining the country’s commitment to coal-fired power stations for decades to come. This makes it difficult for us to be squeaky green, which is, perhaps, how the government is trying to position itself to justify its position as Cop chair. We have been at pains to present an acceptable face to the world ever since 1994. We have had considerable success in doing so, it seems to me, even if this has undermined our own national welfare in some ways. As international events have shown recently, it is not always easy to stick to principle when pragmatic actions are clearly preferable. The secretary-general of NUM’s recent comments about the value of coal to the national economic paradigm could easily be construed as just about treasonable at this time just ahead of the acme of carbon vilification. My view is that he made a very realistic statement that deserves serious consideration. No, we don’t want to buck the international trend (how international it is remains to be seen, of course), but nor can we buy into it just for the sake of doing so. Rather, we must improve our technologies to make coal cleaner and not seek to dispense with it while it is an important natural resource that is a good deal cheaper than most alternatives.

Alternative energy sources are to be welcomed, however, and one hopes that the integration of new supplies from green technologies into the national grid will be brought about sooner rather than later. And that these will not increase the price, for it is characteristic of right and proper things (like organic vegetables, health foods and vitamin preparations) that they should be more expensive. It will be a day to remember when solar heating costs less to install than a traditional geyser.

• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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