Decarbonisation refers to shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and improving energy efficiency, in order to cut planet-warming emissions to a net zero. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

It all began in 1864, with the opening of a colliery near Molteno in the Eastern Cape – South Africa’s first coal mine.

Then came discoveries in Vereeniging, Springs, Witbank, Delmas. More coal mines followed. A seemingly constant supply of energy, the backbone of an economy.

Fast-forward 150 years and South Africa is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet – an embarrassing fact, given that we’re due to host the world’s largest climate change talks later this month.

A report released by the International Energy Agency last week estimates that South Africa pumped about 369.4 million tons (Mt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere in 2009.

This makes us the 16th largest emitter of the gas globally and by far the worst offender in Africa.

Given the rising trend over the years, it’s likely to be even higher this year.

And the root of it all? Our overwhelming dependence on coal – our “coal addiction”, says Greenpeace climate campaigner Melita Steele.

We produce. We sell. And, with about 93 percent of our electricity generated by coal, we consume by the truckload.

Renewable energy accounts for less than 2 percent of the load. Where it requires investment and an overhaul of the national grid, coal in South Africa remains cheap and abundant.

“But the reality is that coal is deadly, and the true cost of coal is destruction at every step, destroying people’s health and well-being,” says Steele. “Coal is the most polluting energy source on the planet, and the main source of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.”

Not that the government isn’t doing anything about it.

As a developing country, South Africa is not technically obliged to reduce its carbon emissions. According to the Kyoto Protocol, that onus rests on the developed countries who put us in this position in the first place.

But as early as December 2009, President Jacob Zuma committed the country to massive voluntary emissions cuts.

Our long-term mitigation strategy requires our emissions to peak between 2020 and 2025, plateau for a decade, and steadily and continuously decline by 2050 to levels we haven’t seen since the early 1990s.

“The South African government is committed to playing its part in ensuring that we take active and bold steps to respond to this lurking threat,” Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said recently.

Her department’s National Climate Change Response White Paper is positively upbeat about fighting the phenomenon, about the “social and economic benefits, including improved international competitiveness, that will result from a transition to a lower-carbon economy”.

Within two years of the final publication of the paper – whenever that may be; it opened for public hearings this week – a number of flagship programmes will be launched to get the low-carbon ball rolling. Plans involve public transport expansion, waste management and renewable energy.

Just how those plans will work, however, isn’t made clear.

What is clear are the two massive coal-fired power stations Eskom has waiting in the wings.

Electricity generation is the biggest CO2 producer in South Africa, our slew of coal-fired power stations responsible for about half of the country’s emissions – and that with nearly 3.5 million households still off the grid, according to the Energy Department’s 2010 electrification numbers.

The new Medupi and Kusile power stations in Limpopo and Mpumalanga are meant to meet the country’s growing demand for power.

But at what price?

A study by Business Enterprises at the University of Pretoria, commissioned by Greenpeace, and released last week, examined the external costs of the Kusile power station alone: the health impacts, the use of water, the costs of mining and transportation – and the contribution to climate change.

The numbers were staggering. The study predicts an estimated social damage cost of between R31.2bn and R60.6billion a year.

As for the environment?

Kusile is expected to burn through 17Mt of coal every year, emitting another 37Mt of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. South Africa’s overall emissions will jump by another 10 percent.

“Kusile doesn’t have to be built, despite Eskom’s arguments that this massive coal-fired power station is needed to keep the lights on in South Africa,” says Steele. “Investing in people will not only boost South Africa’s economic development, but also stem catastrophic climate change. It’s about the government making the right choices to create a better and cleaner future.” - The Star