How sustainable are climate change solutions?

On Monday night as I stood in the queue snaking out the door of Cape Town’s independent arthouse cinema The Labia for a ticket to see the screening of US-made climate change solutions movie Carbon Nation I found myself surprised by the number of Capetonians interested in the topic. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – Cape Town offers a green lifestyle for certain segments of the population.

The film’s positioning is a refreshing take on climate change. The science is sound, it touches but does not dwell in a doom-laden way on the immense challenge, and crucially it presents lots of different examples of people (Americans) who are involved in climate-safe solutions with additional social and economic benefits.

My favourite characters profiled in the film are the one-armed cotton-farming Texan who, in his own words, has “single-handedly” (cue the cinema erupting in laughter) created one of the world’s largest windfarms which now generates not just power but regular income for local farmers and jobs for young people who previously left for larger cities. Also, the former army general who is helping the US’s Department of Defense to become more energy efficient and use sustainable power. It’s a tripple-whammy: trucks transporting fuel to army bases in the desert are targets for explosive devices, so by fitting their tents with better insulated materials that require less cooling and are powered by wind and solar power, the army is saving money, lives and diesel. In these cases the climate change solutions are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Watching the film and seeing all the possibilities of wind power, solar, planted or white-washed roofs, it made me think about how Cape Town and the rest of South Africa should be taking advantage of the country’s incredibly strong winds and abundant supply of sunshine which falls exactly when power is needed for air conditioning and cooling of offices, malls, etc. I imagine others in the cinema were thinking the same thing.

After some research and with my sustainability hat on, I realise it’s not that clear cut for large-scale clean energy solutions here. There’s talk and calls for encouraging investment in renewables as outlined in this GreenTimes article. However, it’s prudent to remember there are always tradeoffs for large companies facing social and economic as well as environmental challenges that will influence the decisions they make. And the ones who truly want to be sustainable don’t take these decisions lightly.

Consider South Africa’s biggest energy providers Sasol and Eskom. Despite being inherently dirty and polluting companies with the largest carbon footprints in SA, Sasol, for example, is also the country’s biggest tax payer, employs 34,000 people and is one of the largest private sector innovators. In other words, it’s pretty vital to the South African economy not just in providing the country’s power but also for jobs and adding to economic growth.

Sasol has been committed to sustainable development for a long time and recently established a new energy unit tasked with finding ways of providing an energy mix for South Africa which isn’t wholly based on fossil fuels. This includes energy efficiency, renewables (wind and solar), carbon capture and storage (a way of taking CO2 out of the atmosphere) and low-carbon and nuclear electricity. They may not be shouting loudly about it unlike the much berated (including a spoof site by the Yes Men – hard to tell the difference, eh!) of the Chevron ‘We Agree’ marketing campaign,  but Sasol is well aware of South Africa’s energy challenges and is taking considered action.

Sasol also has the tricky task of meeting the requirements of lots of new government legislation around low-carbon development. For energy production in this country this includes an Integrated Resource Plan, SA’s Climate Change commitments (currently a Green Paper and Carbon tax discussion paper) and the government’s high level commitments that came out of COP15 in Copenhagen. The problem is that these requirements don’t link up well yet and it is not yet entirely clear what a company like Sasol needs to aim for and how it will do it. For example, Sasol’s different business units could well be significantly affected by what the government is proposing, especially the carbon tax.

These challenges and the sense of urgency for finding the best solutions for low-carbon, sustainable growth and committing to them, is a hot topic here. Editor-in-Chief of the Mail and Guardian, Nic Dawes, discusses what he made of Joseph Stiglitz’ recent lecture on climate change, the global economy and the implications for South Africa. Watch it here.

With climate change solutions there are always going to be tricky trade-offs to ensure carbon reducing initiatives are not implemented to the detriment of other sustainable development issues like job creation, economic growth and social development. Further, if a company isn’t shouting about what they’re doing about climate change it does not necessarily mean they are not taking it seriously and trying to do something about it. No wonder Van Jones was quoted in Carbon Nation as frequently being heard to sing ‘It’s not easy being green’!

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One Response to How sustainable are climate change solutions?

  1. Mark says:

    I’ve had this conversation a thousand times in the past, and sadly I feel that it’s becoming less and less useful to continue: but as its Georgina Coombes whom I have read and whose work I have followed from afar for a while, just once more then.

    So, one the one hand I have hear the usual stuff from the sustainability lobby about what must be done and so forth. You know the argument. On the other, there’s a strong lobby saying, yes there are trade-offs and we must understand that sustainability competes with job creation and so forth: even, we really must get the environmental and social separations narrowed. And both sides have settled into their positions – appearing to wnat and to work for movement, but without any movement actually taking place.- what Njabulo Ndebele calls a state of perceived constant transformation.

    All that is really happening, in my view, is that observers are becoming mored tired of the act and are moving on – so in surveys they’ll say, “sure, the environment is important as is social justice” but ask them is they’re confident anything’ll get done, and likely they’ll answer “no.”

    It really is time for the act to end. All the wisdom of Georgina and others is undone as long as businesses persist in separating their sustainability and social justice mechanisms and treating them as separate things; as long as the Minister for Environmental Affairs and the Minister for Economic Development do not address their issues as one; as long as the speakers at environmental conferences re predominantly white and those at social justice discussions are predominantly black.

    It’s time to face the fact that the sustainability industry is horribly divided along racial lines and neither has a commitment to cooperation or damnation. I really am tired of this halfway stuff from both sides – both claiming the other is ignoring the elephant in the room.

    To bring this rant to an end: the environmental and social justice movements each hold a little of the truth in their hands; but neither are prepared to share with the other nor to give ground to effect a total social and environmental revolution. Because of this, the sustainability discussion has polarised in this country and sadly, along racial lines. Because of this, our discussions deal with “small” issues and never amount to an overriding national aproach which is after all, what we need to deal with the challenges we have. Finally, because of this, people like me become tired of reading, year after year, ineffectual stuff from both sides while the problem deepens.

    Rant over.

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