South Africa’s power organisation Eskom has put forward loan proposals to several loan and aid agencies including a proposal to the World Bank for a $3.75 billion loan of which $3bn would go towards financing a coal-fired plant.
The power plant is scheduled to operate in Medupi, in the ecologically sensitive area of Waterberg. It would be the world’s fourth more carbon intensive coal fired plant, with plans to supply 4,800 megawatts of electricity.
Eskom and the leaders of South Africa say they need energy and a coal fired plant is the most sensible route to filling the gap between need and availability. NGOs and other countries, like the US & the UK, have urged the World Bank to disapprove the proposal on the grounds of environmental harm and possible debt problems. This real-live story quintessentially illustrates the chasm between energy poverty experienced in many developing countries and the low carbon goals of developed countries. It shows why it is so difficult to come to an international agreement regarding carbon reduction; why developing countries are hesitant to sign over their freedom to develop energy cheaply and why developed countries are reluctant to leave developing countries out of the deal.
The Situation in the eyes of Eskom and the South African Government.
Today the South African economy is two-thirds larger than it was in 1994. As with most growth, with it has come an increased demand for electricity. Supply has not met demand - about 30% of South Africans have no access to energy. A lot of this growth has been centred on mines and factories, which themselves need electricity. If there is no access to energy, prospects for growth will be undermined. Eskom projects that by 2028 there will be a demand of 80,000 megawatts of electricity that they will not be able to meet if they do not have access to the coal.
The finance minister of South Africa, Pravin Gordhan, believes that energy from coal is the “only responsible way forward”. It’s abundant, it’s affordable. South Africa has large deposits of coal – why shouldn’t they use a natural resource they have? In addition, he argues that developing countries need to get themselves on sustainable growth tracks in order to be in a position to play a part in preserving the environment. In the same light, “You cannot have poverty alleviation without economic growth…and you cannot have economic growth without access to energy” (World Bank 2010).
Eskom is the only electricity supplier in South Africa. It also supplies 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa with electricity including Botswana, Lesotho and Namibia. If Eskom cannot provide energy, a lot of Sub-Saharan countries will suffer.
As the critics see it.
There are three basic arguments against Eskom’s proposal: one is that the coal-fired plant is environmentally harmful to the point where it’s detrimental to the economy and of course to our Planet; two, the loan and the debt are likely to lead to a currency crash and lead the public towards more energy poverty; and finally there are doubts about Eskom, their management skills and their projections.
This coal fired plant is projected to emit 25 million tonnes of carbon a year. 200 local organisations have signed up to protest against the plant. It is expected that the coal plant will lead to complete degradation of water sources, air pollution and a rise in mercury.
A typical 500 megawatt coal-fired plant draws about 2.2 billion gallons of water every year from nearby water sources including rivers, lakes and oceans in order to create steam. This would be enough water for 250,000 people. This Eskom coal plant is a lot larger than the typical coal-fired plant, almost 10 times larger.
By borrowing another $3.75 billion, South Africa is putting itself in a fragile situation. Their currency has crashed 5 times since 1996; even more loans are likely to increase the likelihood of another crash. There is also going to be a price increase of electricity for South Africans. Eskom originally requested a 45% increase of price each year over the next three years. The government didn’t allow this, but they did allow a 25% increase in price for the next three years. Eskom has been and is catering significantly to the major energy intensive industrial users whom they have been giving dirt cheap energy prices to in order to keep the mining companies and others in the country. It offers the world’s cheapest electricity to export-orientated metals and mining multi-national corporations.
Last year Eskom lost US$1.3 billion, highlighting its problems with management. Also, Eskom would not be able to get such a large loan from the World Bank if they did not have such high projections of energy demand in the future. Some, including the World Resource Institute, say it’s debatable whether there is an 80,000 megawatt projection for 2028 is realistic. Projected electricity demand may be unrealistically high to justify the huge capital investment.
So what do you think? If you take away the questions about mismanagement, exaggerated demand projection and strip this issue down to its bare bones – does moving a country out of energy poverty using an abundant and affordable energy source override the need for a healthy environment and a low-carbon future? Do you think that we have no right to tell a country that they shouldn’t use their natural resource because developed countries have already done that and have already ruined the environment? Or do you think that regardless of what happened in the past we need to be future and forward looking despite the present circumstances? Maybe Brown, Stern and the others meeting in London this week in the attempt to come up with a way to raise $100 billion a year to help developing countries move towards a low-carbon economy should set their already high aims higher.
This month marks my two year anniversary as a [cheating] vegetarian. Quite appropriately I have just finished reading Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. If I wasn’t a vegetarian I more than likely wouldn’t have been able to get through the first chapter. It reminds me of how I felt when I read White Lies by Nick Davies when I was a teenager. The racism, hatred and ignorance captured in Davies’ writings frustrated me to the point where the book was literally thrown to the floor – it took me several months the finish a book that would normally be read in one week. Similarly the treatment and disregard for animals displayed in Safran Foer’s book makes me want to yell. But will these feelings last?
I didn’t become a vegetarian because of a deep resolve regarding animal rights or disgust with the lack of animal welfare evident in the industry. It was just a point in my life where everything added up and it made perfect sense to wean off the meat. An image of a huge truck on the highway in China stacked high with cages with a pig packed tightly in each was etched into my consciousness. I was becoming increasingly interested in environmental issues hence increasingly aware of the environmental damages caused by factory farming and transporting. According to the UN FAO the livestock sector generates 18% of the greenhouse gases produced - more than the transport sector. Additionally livestock uses 30% of the earth’s entire land surface. And finally I visited a local farm in my hometown (not for interest in the animals but in search for their manure for a composting project) where I saw where the pigs lived. My original plan was to only eat local, free-range meat, as well as wild fish. But when I started this new diet I was home in the Bahamas where local, free-range meat wasn’t clearly advertised, so my free-range only diet became a veggie only diet and very quickly I was turned off the whole idea of eating meat at all. I don’t really understand why; I promise myself at least once a month I’ll eat less chocolate, but I can never find the willpower to stop. Maybe it’s because the moral aspect of vegetarianism is stronger than the image and health argument against chocolate?
Safran Foer’s book brilliantly captures this moral aspect through the portal of factory farming industry in the US – the inhumane, filthy, unhealthy and ‘adulterous’ practices of the trade. Safran Foer himself became a vegetarian during his research and his book advocates for vegetarianism but also for ‘another, wiser animal agriculture and more honourable omnivory’. While he mentions environmental as well as labour arguments for changing the industry, his main focus in on animal rights and/or welfare. A section of the book entitled The Life and Death of a Bird vividly captures the life and death of a chicken in a factory farm step by step – from the early days of unending light so they are tricked into thinking they can and should eat all as much as possible, to the diseases and deformities they live with (three out of four birds will have some degree of walking impairment, one out of four have significant trouble walking), to the way they are stuffed into crates to travel to the slaughter house (“30 percent of all live birds arriving at the slaughterhouse have freshly broken bones”), to the electricity shower that is supposed to render them unconscious but usually just immobilises them leaving them awake and aware (about four million birds each year in the US reach the scalding tank still alive and conscious), to the soaking of the chicken meat in a bath where the ‘faecal soup’ is absorbed into the meat (about 11% of the chicken meat sold in the US is essentially this faecal soup).
According to the Vegetarian Society there are about four million vegetarians in the UK – about 7 percent of the population. People become vegetarian for a handful of different reasons: health concerns (“vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, and have higher levels of dietary fibre, magnesium and potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals”), religious restrictions (Hinduism and Buddhism hold vegetarianism as an ideal as well as Seven Day Adventists and Jains), environmental degradation (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gases), and food safety (about 5,000 people die a year in the United States from food borne diseases like e.coli and salmonella). However, the main and most popular reason remains moral – vegetarians force themselves to “remember” as Safran Foer describes it.
A lot of what Safran Foer writes forces me to look at things that I normally consciously try to ‘not remember’. I have somewhat divorced the idea of me not eating meat from everything else in my life. My husband is a very active meat-eater and just last Sunday, in the middle of reading Eating Animals, I prepared a roast dinner of a lamb breast joint. It was surprisingly easy to just not think about it, unroll the baby sheep breast, stuff it, roll it up, and put it in the oven. I had no desire to eat it, but I had no problem cooking it. What does this mean for my conviction? We eat less meat in our household because we’ve compromised to cook two vegetarian meals weekly, but otherwise it’s eating as usual. Do I not remember enough?
During my two year journey I have always been a [cheating] vegetarian. I have never stopped eating fish or conch (a popular mollusc and dish in the Bahamas). When I am home most of the fish I eat is caught by someone I know, a lot of the time by my father who is the captain of a boat. I was or am able to justify it to myself by arguing that you can’t get any more local than that and the fish have a good life before… right? I have also been fishing since I was a toddler. And it struck me hard while reading Safran Foer’s book that I never really considered the suffering of the fish I pulled up. Of course I experienced a pang of guilt and turned my head when my dad was taking the hook out of the mouth, but it never really bothered me to the point that I would change the fact that the fish we caught were thrown into a bucket or the floor of the boat left to suffocate and suffer. How was I able to disconnect myself from that, even as a vegetarian? Is it because I’ve disassociated fish from feeling animals, or because I’ve always been around it and have become desensitised? I just don’t know.
I have somewhat come to the conclusion that I will stay away from fish while I’m living in the UK. But what about when I go home? Fish is a huge part of my diet, of my culture. Many Sundays my dad spends hours in the kitchen preparing his famous stew fish. It is tradition that every Boxing Day our extended family and friends come to our house for boiled grouper, stewed fish and chicken souse. Where would I stand if I didn’t share in this food companionship? Safran Foer focuses on this too and how eating meat together is a tradition, a form of familial companionship.
He suggests breaking this tradition of eating meat and making it into something better where eventually it will turn around completely and our kids will say ‘how did they eat that stuff?’
Will we remember enough?