How big is SA's carbon footprint?

By Melanie Gosling Time of article published Oct 31, 2008

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South Africa's carbon footprint is way above the world average - a reflection both on the country's heavy reliance on coal and on our high level of energy inefficiency.

If the county were to meet the commitment made by cabinet to have greenhouse gas emissions peak and start to decline between 2020 and 2025, it needed to support legally-binding measures to do so, to put a price on carbon and to grow the local technology in renewable energy.

This was technically possible, without compromising development.

"But the challenge will be to mobilise the finances and the political will within the regulatory framework to do this," said Richard Worthington, climate change programme manager for the South African branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Worthington, speaking at the release of WWF International's Living Planet Report this week, said if South Africa carried on "business as usual", the country's carbon emissions would increase fourfold by 2050.

"What's happening in the Arctic is the canary in the coalmine," he said.

But unlike miners, who had the option of leaving the mine, humans did not have the option of leaving the planet as the effects of global climate change intensified.

Worthington referred to the WWF Climate Solutions Model in the Living Planet Report which showed that it was technically possible to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from energy services, while expanding energy supplies.

There were three principal strategies in WWF's model to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy services.

The first was energy efficiency - getting more energy services from each unit of energy used - which could reduce demand by 39 percent by 2050. The second was the rapid growth of a full range of low-emission technologies, which could meet 70 percent of the demand. The third was the fossil-fuelled plants with carbon and capture storage technology, which would meet another 26 percent of energy production.

Two complementary measures were required: the development of flexible fuels and energy storage to enable energy from intermittent sources like wind and solar to be stored and transformed into transportable fuels; and the substitution of high-carbon coal with low-carbon gas as a bridging measure between 2010 and 2040.

To achieve this, world governments needed to agree on clear and ambitious targets, to collaborate on effective strategies and to co-ordinate investments in energy development.

Delays would make the transition to a low-carbon economy increasingly expensive and difficult. It was crucial to begin the transition now, to avoid the risk of becoming locked in to energy-intensive infrastructure. The report stressed the three "imperatives" were required to ensure that global greenhouse gas emissions from energy peaked and started to decline within 10 years.

They are leadership, speed and a global effort.

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