The South African government released its official climate change response policy this week and while it contains many positives, many environmentalists, myself included, are very concerned about the fact that it contains a continued and increased commitment to nuclear energy.
First, some of the good news. In the National Climate Change Response White Paper, the government reiterates its conviction, based on the research of the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists, that climate change is happening, that human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation are the main causes and that there will be very severe consequences if the international community does not take decisive collective action to halt it.
That’s great. There’s not denying that. What’s more, the South African government acknowledges that, while Africa as a continent has been a relatively minor contributor to climate change, South Africa itself is a significant emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG), largely as a result of its energy-intensive, fossil fuel powered economy. If nothing is done, the country’s emissions are projected to quadruple by 2050.
The new climate change response policy, released just a month before the important COP17 meeting (the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) in the coastal city of Durban, sets out a framework for how the country plans to reduce its GHG emissions to a level believed to restrict the increase in global mean temperatures to within 2oC of pre-industrial levels and prevent catastrophic consequences.
Electricity generation accounts for about 40% of all of South Africa’s GHG emissions and clearly this represents a major opportunity for future reductions. More than 90% of the country’s electricity is produced by coal-fired power stations. The French-built Koeberg plant outside Cape Town, which dates back to the Apartheid era, remains the country’s only commercial nuclear energy facility.
It’s interesting to take a look at how a major new nuclear energy construction program has become an integral part of South Africa’s climate change policy. The ruling African National Congress, in power since the first democratic elections in 1994, used to be a staunch opponent of atomic energy. When the organization was in exile some of its underground operatives even sabotaged Koeberg while it was being built.
These days, however, the ANC government is a very strong proponent of nuclear energy. Critics believe that this is mainly the result of effective lobbying by the international nuclear industry and the country’s main industrial and mining electricity consumers. This week, Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters confirmed that plans to construct 6 new nuclear plants with a combined capacity of 9 600 megawatts would cost something like R1 trillion (about $125 billion).
The formal acceptance of nuclear energy into South Africa’s climate change policy can be traced back to a study of so-called long term mitigation scenarios (LTMS) which modeled various actions that could be taken to bring the country’s GHG emission under control in line with what is required internationally to prevent catastrophic climate change.
This study involved consultation and cooperation with multiple stakeholders including government, industry, civil society and the country’s scientific community. As a preferred solution it honed in on a “Peak, Plateau and Decline” emissions trajectory which would see national emissions peak between 2020 and 2025, followed by a decade-long plateau and then a gradual decline.
Significantly, the LTMS study, which was adopted by the South African cabinet in 2008 and presented to the world for the first time with considerable acclaim at COP14 in Poznań (Poland) in 2009, did not consider any scenarios that phased out both fossil fuels and nuclear power in favor of renewable sources of energy. That’s not an unreasonable suggestion – the South African branches of the WWF and Greenpeace have, in fact, come up with just such scenarios.
It’s quite clear that South Africa, a country with vast solar and wind energy potential, could make a transition to a clean, green economy free of environmentally dubious nuclear power and fossil fuels within a reasonable time frame. But since the government-sanctioned LTMS study did not provide this as an option, it seems not to have been considered by the powers that be.
Even though the authors of the study emphasize that it was not a decision-making process in itself and was only meant to present policy-makers with options, the fact that the options it presented were severely limited meant that its recommendations became policy and nuclear energy became part of South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan defining electricity generation until 2030 as well as the national climate change response policy.
Unless anti-nuclear campaigners make some serious progress soon, nuclear energy will play a very significant role in South Africa’s future.
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