The Green Post: Paying up for short-sightedness

2012-02-24 14:32

Short-sightedness. Procrastination. The ailments most humans seem to suffer from when it comes to making critical decisions about the future.

It takes courage to make a difficult decision, which is not necessarily the easiest, cheapest option at the time.

And when it comes to looking after our environment, the courage is severely lacking. Stalling and short-termism rule the roost.

And nowhere it is more apparent than our planning around fossil fuels.

The science is unequivocal – human-induced activity is responsible for rampant climate change. And it is humankind’s addiction to fossil fuels that is driving it.

At the Africa Energy Indaba this week, an energy analyst compared coal to asbestos. His analysis was spot on.

At the turn of the century, asbestos was the magic heat insulator and was used abundantly in homes and industry. Called the “miracle mineral”, it powered economic growth with factories opening left, right and centre to provide this popular mineral to all and sundry.

Asbestos was cheap and it was widely available and easy to work with. Much like coal.
And then the pawpaw hit the fan.

In the 1930s, it became clear that asbestos came with a very expensive price tag – lung cancer. People were dying because of the supposed miracle mineral. Especially hard hit were the miners taking out the minerals every year.

Yet it took governments around the world several decades to tighten legislation around asbestos use, and it was only banned in some countries as late as the 1990s.

A hundred years ago asbestos was cheap. But it is estimated that the total costs of asbestos litigation in the US alone came to more than $250 billion (about R1.9 trillion). The hidden costs of asbestos were indeed astronomical.

Asbestos litigation is also the longest, most expensive mass tort in American history, involving more than 8 400 defendants and 730 000 claimants.

Even today, decades after asbestos became a pariah, people are being diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses and that is expected for another 10 years.

The same red lights are flickering with coal. The authoritative Stern report, written by economist Sir Nicholas Stern, has warned about the astronomical costs facing the planet if rampant climate change is allowed and we don’t cut down on our coal habit.

People will lose their homes, livelihoods and income due to climate change, reports keep on telling us. And yes, people will die as a result of climate change. Whether from starvation or disease risk as malaria increases.

And it is very likely that these vulnerable people will instigate legal action against the governments who refused to act when they were warned. As in the case of asbestos.

We all know that we are reliant on coal to keep the lights on for now. But the price tag on coal in the long term is just too high.

Moving away from coal is a painful, expensive operation. And President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address, which talks about investing in coal is not helpful.

It will take serious leadership to wean us off the coal diet. It is quite easy to rely on what has been powering South Africa’s economy for the last 100 years. It is what we know. It is what our economy and job creation knows.

It is a brave leader that will lead us towards a better tomorrow with hard, unpopular decisions.

Can Zuma be that South African leader?

The cost of not devising an exit strategy for coal now, will be much greater for our children and grandchildren.

With hindsight, investing in asbestos was one of the worst decisions of the industrial revolution.

Let’s not say in 50 years’ time that sticking to coal in the face of all the warnings was one of the worst of human civilisation.

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