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Publication Details

Reference
Gausdal, L & Sharife, K (2011) Quick and Dirty - But Not Cheap: South Africa’s Minerals-Energy Complex. Pre-COP 17 Meeting, Durban, November 25-26 : 1-23.

Summary
In late November South Africa (Durban) will host world governments committed to tackling the problem of climate change at the 17th annual Conference of the Parties (COP17).

COP17 falls under the umbrella of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a convention that emerged from the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992.

Governments that ratified the convention – presently over 190 signatories, are known as the ‘Parties’ and meet annually at the COP. The spirit of the UNFCCC is underpinned by two principles: i) common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, and ii) polluter pays. The question at the heart of the COP17 meeting is greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions. The UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol, finalised in Japan (1997) legally binds 37 industrialised nations (known as Annex 1 countries) to cut emissions, while developing nations like South Africa are excluded.

But even as South Africa talks the green talk, actions prove otherwise evidenced in the construction of the third- and fourth-largest coal-fired power plants in the world (Kusile and Medupi) for the benefit of large mining houses such as BHP Billiton, accessing what is claimed to be the cheapest electricity in the world thanks to four decade-long apartheid-era negotiated ‘discount’ deals.

As this article unpacks, at the cost of R125 billion, Medupi alone - pegged to generate 4800MW - is estimated to emit more than 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, places it ahead of 115 countries globally, once operation begins in 2012. Ironically, the Uppington solar plant – forecast to produce 5000MW of solar energy, has been slated as a ‘private sector’ project (NPR 2010).

Beyond emissions, the nation faces a crisis arguably more immediate than climate change: acid mine drainage (AMD) – the ‘by-product’ of the country’s colonial and apartheid-era history rooted in exploitation of lucrative finite resources, such as gold, uranium and coal. Not only does AMD, constituting about 88% of waste generated in SA, threaten to contaminate scarce water resources in a country where the water crisis is not looming, but already present; but it simultaneously catalyses ecosystem destruction and the externalisation of the true costs of the ‘world’s cheapest electricity’ – coal.

Though the costs of mitigating water pollution has been pegged at R360 billion over the next 15 years by one specialist report unpacked below, the real costs – to the ecosystem (including land, air, water resources), citizen, and labour health and safety; and commercial ventures such as agriculture, is incalculable.

Despite these profound realities, and others – such as overestimated coal reserves, the government has embarked on a programme of continuing South Africa’s uneven development, rooted in the apartheid-era formulated ‘minerals-energy complex’ (MEC) via the seven-year long R440 billion coal- expansion programme – and this, in the name of the people.

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