File picture: Patrick Pleul

Johannesburg - South Africa’s focus on a nuclear-build programme is detracting from sustainable jobs that could be created through renewable energy - and from ensuring energy justice for all, according to outgoing Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo.

“Our government is talking nuclear; we think it’s completely crazy. It’s too expensive. It’s too dangerous. It will deliver too little, too late,” said Naidoo. “The job-creation potential of renewable (energy) is great. But we need to invest in young people now, in education.”

Speaking to the Cape Town Press Club yesterday, Naidoo said it was irresponsible for the government to pursue an energy future with technology imported from outside South Africa at a staggering cost.

“Who benefits from it is a legitimate question for South Africans to ask,” said Naidoo, pointing out that globally, nuclear power deals were untransparent, benefiting the powerful, while construction of nuclear power plants took at least 10 years – if there were no delays.

Underscoring this, Naidoo recalled Greenpeace discussions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011: despite Germany’s multibillion-euro investment in nuclear, there were just 30 000 jobs, while at the time, the emerging renewable energy sector already employed 400 000 people.

“I’m coming home. One of the triggers for me was the nuclear proposals (in South Africa). But the bigger picture is energy justice,” said Naidoo. “It is scandalous, 20 years into democracy so many people live in energy injustice (not able to access or pay for energy).”

At the end of the year, Naidoo will return to South Africa after six years at the helm of Greenpeace International, where one of his focuses has been bringing together organisations across civil society to co-operate on mitigating climate change and ensuring sustainable energy.

Climate change was not an environmental matter alone, but also involved human rights, social justice, faith-based and trade union movements.

“In South Africa, we are not quite there, but people are coming together,” Naidoo said. “If we treat these issues as standalone… we will fail miserably. We have a responsibility to invest in the leadership development of young people.”

This week, he joined the weekly vigil outside Parliament against South Africa going nuclear. On his list of things to do on his return is volunteering and working part-time at an activist leadership school and organic farming training project.

Naidoo still laughs at his first experience at Greenpeace, like coming to grips with the alphabet soup of acronyms or the reaction of family and friends in Durban when he was arrested in Greenland over protests against a UK company prospecting in 2011: “What the hell is an African doing in the Arctic?”

Regarding climate change: “We have a small window of opportunity left to take the action needed… the window is fast closing,” Naidoo said.

Already the impact of a warmer planet is felt in the increasing intensity and frequency of extreme weather events.

“It’s a mistake to talk about climate change as if it will hit us in the future. Lives are being lost now... agriculture is affected now,” he said.

“Nature does not negotiate.”