Andreas Späth

Only green on paper?

2011-02-02 07:25

I’m a cynic when it comes to much of what passes for “democratic process” these days. Important public policies, including those on environmental issues, tend to be written by government technocrats with way more input from big business and industry than from ordinary citizens.

While lip service is paid to lofty ideals like public education and consultation with diverse stakeholders, civil society organisations can at best hope to have their concerns noted or at worst be expected to rubber-stamp pre-established policy documents that pander to vested interests.

Take the National Climate Change Response Green Paper, for example. “Never even heard of it” you say? Well that just proves my point. You’ve also just about missed the opportunity to participate in one of the provincial consultative workshops although (for what it’s worth) you can leave on-line comments on the website.

Given the considerable impact climate change will have on our country for generations to come, I would have thought a process of wide-spread public debate and participation would have been in order to help decide how government is going to spend our tax money. The reality has been woefully inadequate so far.

Positives

Before I become more belligerent than strictly necessary, I need to point out that the green paper actually contains a number of real positives. While in many other countries, most notably the USA, effective climate change policy is barely on the agenda, at least we have a government that recognises that:

• climate change is happening and that humans bear a decisive degree of culpability for it;

• our fossil fuel-driven economy makes us a major emitter of greenhouse gases and therefore a part of the problem;

• South Africa - already under stress from inequality, water scarcity, poverty, unemployment, etc - is especially vulnerable to the impacts of global warming, which is identified as “one of the greatest threats to sustainable development”; and

• we have to reduce our national carbon footprint to give us a chance of mitigating potentially catastrophic consequences.

The green paper proposes various mechanisms aimed at reigning in our carbon habit enough to allow greenhouse gas emissions to peak between 2020 and 2025 and to start reducing them from 2036 onwards. These include interventions in various sectors of the economy, especially in electricity generation where our dependence on coal-fired power stations has been the single most important factor in making us the 12th biggest CO2 emitter worldwide. Encouragingly there is substantial emphasis on energy efficiency measures, SA’s vast but largely untapped renewable energy potential and the need to move to a low carbon economy.

All good then? A truly “green” green paper?

Well, not quite. Disappointingly - if predictably - the document also list nuclear energy as part of the climate change mitigation strategy, ignoring its environmental and potential human health impacts. Even more ominously, the green paper calls for investments in “new and clean coal technologies” such as carbon capture and storage.

We owe it to ourselves

But hoping to solve our climate dilemma by burning more of the coal that caused it in the first place has to rank somewhere between falling hook, line and sinker for malignant industry greenwash and self-deluded wishful thinking. There’s no such thing as clean coal and the best thing to do with it is to leave it in the ground.

My concern is that we’ll end up with a beautiful National Climate Change Response policy that emphasises clean, green renewable energy solutions and energy efficiency on paper, but a reality that involves continued and massive spending on dirty coal and nuclear power.

We owe it to ourselves to get actively involved in the process of moving SA towards a truly green, low-carbon and sustainable future. The onus is on us to educate ourselves on the issues involved (all assurances to the contrary, government isn’t doing it), to make our voices heard wherever we can and to claim some control over policy decisions that will affect our lives and our planet.

We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to future generations. What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask what you did about the climate change problems which they will have to live with for the rest of their lives?

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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