By Henrietta Mongalo – Ngulunews Community Paper*
DURBAN, Dec 2 — (TerraViva) South Africa is the continent’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, largely due to generating electricity in coal-fired power stations. The country must replace these polluting plants with clean energy sources, but it must do so with care, says Philemon Shiburi.
Shiburi, the treasurer of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), is attending the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban as a representative of labour.
“South Africa must find other ways of generating energy which are climate friendly,” he said. “As a country, we are feeling the effects of global warming, especially on our agriculture. However, we have to be careful about how this new energy is introduced into our society.”
His statements were echoed by the Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters. Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of COP17, Peters said that South Africa was committed to move towards a low-carbon economy.
This commitment, she said, was entrenched when the President pledged that South Africa would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent – below “business as usual” levels – by the year 2020.
The current reality, the minister said, is that more than 65 percent of South Africa’s total energy needs are met by coal. “Coal therefore plays the dominant role in our supply of energy, especially in the electricity sector where approximately 90 percent of the country’s electricity is produced in coal-fired power stations and is therefore the country’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Peters.
The Minister noted the significant contribution of the coal mining industry towards the economy; according to Statistics South Africa, contributed about 1.8 percent of GDP in 2010.
Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, speaking at the same press conference, said the South African government was committed to managing the transition to a climate resilient, equitable and internationally competitive lower-carbon economy and society in a manner that simultaneously addressed South Africa’s over-riding national priorities for sustainable development, job creation, improved public and environmental health, poverty eradication and social equality.
Although the era of using fossil fuel was coming to an end, NUMSA feared that if alternative energy is forced upon South Africa, which is still a developing country, then unemployment would rise and jobs would be shed in the coal mines which are supporting Eskom in generating energy. The union therefore wanted solar energy production to be phased in over time, and for equipment to be manufactured in South Africa in order to create jobs.
Shiburi noted that many rural households still do not have electricity which makes it difficult for them to access the news, have internet access and use many basic household gadgets. NUMSA would like to see more villages being electrified as this would lead to other infrastructure developments, access to information and general improvement of the standard of living of the people.
Speaking to TerraViva, Choma Ramos, a member of Jubilee South Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development (JSAPMDD), agreed that any action to reduce climate change should not affect jobs.
However, Ramos said that mining depletes natural resources and does not have a long-term positive impact on the people who work in them or in the surrounding environment: “Mines are owned by the big corporates who only want profit. The workers only benefit very little money as salaries but spend the rest of their lives at risk because of climate change and health problems as a result of working in the mines,” she said.
* Community media coverage of COP 17 is being supported by the Media Development & Diversity Agency of South Africa, which is promoting the participation of local journalists through a programme of training and reporting on climate change.