Cooler heads and scientific approach needed in climate debate to reduce carbon emissions

Electricity pylons near Arnot Power Station's cooling towers, east of Middelburg in Mpumalanga. Photo: Reuters

Electricity pylons near Arnot Power Station's cooling towers, east of Middelburg in Mpumalanga. Photo: Reuters

Published Jun 26, 2024


We live in a society incapable of and struggling to ingest and digest information that contradicts one's world view. Last week, I participated in a highly charged SABC TV debate show, “The Big Debate”, on the topic, Environmental Justice.

The audience were mainly the Presidential Climate Commission, Wits University, National Energy Institute and green movement organisations such as Oxfam, Groundup, Green Connection, Cancel Coal and climate scientists and activists who are staunch supporters of green environmental justice and anti-coal and nuclear lobbyists.

During the heated debate, I mentioned that we should not confuse the flaring up at power station cooling towers as carbon dioxide emissions or smog; it is steam vapour rising into the atmosphere.

Fun fact: Cooling towers release warm air that rises into the atmosphere. Often, the general public mistakenly thinks cooling towers emit smoke or harmful fumes. In reality, the emissions from cooling towers mostly do not contribute to carbon footprint emissions and consist solely of water vapour. It is not pollution.

This led to the heated debate, with people saying: “How dare you say vapour is clean and not harmful to the environment!”

However, if environmentalists had spoken about the by-products from Eskom power stations that are emitted from tall, thin stacks, which does release carbon dioxide and pollutants, then that would be factually correct. Cooling towers don’t pollute. What I am trying to illustrate is that one has to be technically precise in terminology in the climate debate.

While carbon dioxide from South Africa’s coal-fired power stations accounts for around 43% of South Africa’s greenhouse emissions it is not from the cooling towers, but another part of the Eskom process.

It goes to show that people have been indoctrinated into believing that climate change and air or environment pollution is driven mainly by smoke released from heavy machinery and smoke rising to the atmosphere, but they do not look at the facts. Science is not at the centre of guiding climate activism.

My point of view was akin to setting the cat among the pigeons. The essence of what I said during the show was lost by the emotionally charged and angry audience who were unwilling to let go of their world-view hubris. Thus, the big debate became an almost unintelligent debate.

It is concerning that most of the public believe vapour from cooling towers is carbon dioxide.

I don’t dispute that carbon dioxide emissions are harmful to the environment but one has to be accurate when they play the blame game.

How power stations and emissions work:

Power stations release various gasses, some harmless and some environmentally polluting, in the process of generating electricity. But water vapour steam is not one of the gasses.

What is carbon dioxide?

Carbon dioxide is an invisible and odourless gas. The gas is made of two molecules: one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. This Is the periodic table classification of CO2.

Environmentalists and climate activists should make a concerted effort to educate grass-roots communities about the facts around climate change and the contributing carbon emissions.

Misinformation about the facts, especially by the not-so-well-trained and naive green activist that comes from poor communities, is wrong and abusive. Misinformation destroys sincere credibility in the actions to mitigate the climate crisis.

Climate scholars and experts alike need to balance their views and opinions on climate and against facts and science in robust and authentic debates.

Instead, the climate or environmental discourse often ends up being discoloured by sloppy emotions and misdirected anger when not-so-agreeable facts are presented, which is a pity because these are important conversations to be had.

To be clear, I too support the cause to champion environmental justice and climate action but there needs to be an honest debate.

When climate/environmental arguments are used to manipulate facts with emotions to justify a blatant commercial interest they become a red flag and concerning.

Wind and solar:

Climate activists are locked in the view that wind and solar are the only solutions to solving the climate crisis and are not open to any other alternatives, not even nuclear alternatives. Why?

Wind and solar are good renewable alternatives but they too have their own levels of emissions and environmental issues during their product life cycle, ranging from recycling to production and so on. Why are these never talked about?

As I mentioned on the show, coal, wind and solar are energy devils. They all contribute their fair share of carbon footprint and environmental degradation. Coal has its own benefits and a major share in contributing towards CO2 emissions, as does solar photovoltaic technology.

Talk about wind and we suddenly forget that vast tracts of land must be cleared to construct wind turbines. Also, wind turbine towers contribute to environmental deforestation and massive environmental noise vibration and are detrimental to bird species. Wind turbines kill birds and destroy the vegetation cycle of the area over a long period.

Don't get me started on battery technology. To produce a battery, more than six types of scarce mineral resources are required. A lithium battery uses lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite, manganese, copper, aluminium and steel. Batteries are as old as electricity itself. In fact, they were invented ages before the popularisation of electricity.

During the show, I was also somewhat taken aback to see the high levels of intolerance green climate activists have towards nuclear energy technologies. The level of intolerance was shocking, to the point of attacking anyone who referred to advancing a mixed energy pathway as a means to reducing levels of emissions and in the years to come, achieving the goals of net zero neutrality.

Nuclear energy generation is carbon neutral and emissions free. Why would a sane, thinking person object to the use of nuclear energy as an alternative source of clean energy generation?

If nuclear technology, alongside other alternatives, was properly deployed, it could solve the bulk issues around baseload coal energy generation and related carbon emissions. Also, there was strong opposition towards using high efficiency low emissions coal technology and carbon capture through coal gasification as an alternative.

How do we, as society, together with communities and all stakeholders, navigate the question and issue of the climate crisis? Well, we all need to be sober and sit together and work as one to reach consensus on climate mitigation goals and objectives.

The most important factor is that we should bring everyone to the table. Forget the emotions and misplaced scare tactics. Carbon emissions and environmental degradation must be reduced. Whether we like the views of those who disagree, whether we agree or not, what is critical is that all stakeholders work together to reduce the levels of carbon emissions and work towards a greener and cleaner environment.

The climate crisis cannot be solved by using the “you are either with us or against us” approach. We are all in the crisis together. Africa is not a pushover continent. Our people should not be made to feel undermined, intimidated and pushed over in the process of finding workable approaches towards resolving the climate crisis.

We do not need yet another form of colonisation, this time around clothed in international aid grants, loans and neo-colonial resources conquered under the guise and name of climate.

All energy activists should be treated with respect and must be properly engaged and consulted when decisions are made.

Honest efforts and approaches should be adopted if we are serious about reaching the climate mitigation goals of achieving the 2050 net zero goal. More needs to be done. For Africa, the journey has just begun.

Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng is president of Transform RSA and an independent energy expert.

* The views in this column are independent of “Business Report” and Independent Media.