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Palm Oil Biodiesel is BAD! January 31, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Environment, Global warming, renewable energy, Sustainable Living.
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I’ve blogged about biofuels previously and although there is still a lot of enthusiasm about these alternatives to petroleum-derived fuels, there is growing evidence that in many cases, biodfuel production is detrimental to the environment. Biodiesel production from palm oil, which is a massively growing industry in Malaysia and Indonesia is particularly troublesome.

Here are three short YouTube videos that highlight some of the problems with palm oil biofuel:

Clearly there is a role for biofuels, but a lot needs to be done to ensure that they are produced in a truly sustainable fashion and don’t actually add to the problems of global warming and environmental degradation (in a positive recent development, the European Union has announced that it may ban imports of certain biofuels that are produced unsustainably).

Growing the economy to help the poor and other myths January 29, 2008

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, Climate change, Environment, Global warming, Politics, Society, South Africa.
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I’ve been reading the 2007 groundWork report, which is entitled Peak Poison: The elite energy crisis and environmental justice. It’s a brilliant synthesis of our current and future energy predicament from an environmental justice perspective and can be downloaded from the groundWork website here – recommended reading!

Here are some interesting extracts:

The central idea of accumulation – that profits must be accumulated and reinvested to make more profits – is the basis of economic growth which is assumed to be a self-evident good. Just as the first priority of every private corporation is to make profit, so the first priority of every government is to ‘grow the economy’.

The poor provide the justification for economic growth which is supposed to ‘lift’ people out of poverty by creating more jobs. To do this the economy must be internationally competitive, which requires increased ‘labour productivity’, which means more capital (like machinery) employed per worker, which means that fewer workers are needed. South Africa’s recent history shows a strong relationship between capital investment and workers redundancy.

The poor provide legitimacy. With more or less sincerity, alleviating poverty is written into the mission statements of institutions as diverse as the World Bank, international aid agencies and NGOs as well as corporate social responsibility programmes. Ending poverty is an indispensable plank in political election platforms, central to the rhetoric of governments and a core justification for the state [and, of course, economic ‘growth’] as such.

Cheap energy for the capital and energy intensive industries at the heart of South Africa’s minerals and energy complex remains central to the state’s strategy for growth in the ‘first economy’ and to Eskom’s […] growth strategy. Major expansions are either planned or in progress in the Mpumalanga platinum mines, at the Hillside and Mozal aluminium smelters, at Columbus Steel and Mittal, and at Sasol, while Indian conglomerate Tata has started construction on a high-carbon ferrochrome plant at Richards Bay. In each case the corporations will be haggling over the electricity price and seeking to ensure that increases […] will be laid at someone else’s door. And the net result will be to lock in carbon intensive economic growth for the next twenty years and more [my emphasis].

Erwin: Alcan smelter to go ahead at Coega January 28, 2008

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, Climate change, Coega, Environment, Global warming, News, South Africa.
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Just when you thought some of the people who make the decisions around here had seen the light, another idiot insists on wearing blinkers, sun glasses and a welder’s helmet all at the same time!

Alec Erwin, the Minister of Public Enterprises (don’t you just love him so!?) has put paid to the suggestion that the painfully stupid idea of letting Canadian giant company Alcan build an energy-draining aluminium smelter at Coega might be, well… really, really stupid. He was quoted in the Weekend Argus as saying:

There is no question of stopping contracted projects or freezing any new projects. Energy crisis… what energy crisis?

OK, I may have added the last sentence…

Said the axe to the lictor… January 25, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Quotes.
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Said the axe to the lictor: “Arbeit macht stumpf. It’s love that will set you free.”

L. Blissett

Patrick Bond: carbon trading is a scam January 23, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Uncategorized.

Durban-based activist/academic Patrick Bond makes a very convincing argument against carbon trading, the mechanism meant to mitigate industrial carbon dioxide emissions (for a great intro to the subject, check-out this urban sprout post).

Bond agrees with Vandana Shiva that “the right to pollute is a multitrillion dollar giveaway to the people who caused the bulk of the climate problems” in the first place.

He criticizes the role South African environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk played at the recent Bali conference:

Van Schalkwyk’s leadership is a travesty, for he has said nothing about South Africa’s own $20 billion in new investments – partly privatised through the US multinational AES – in cheap coal-fired electricity generation for the sake mainly of large corporations; he endorses nuclear energy expansion. SA already has an emissions output per person per unit of GDP twenty times worse than the US [GULP!], and van Schalkwyk’s official carbon trading policy argues that it is primarily a ‘commercial opportunity.’

and he points to a “very different strategy and demand by civil society activists: leave the oil in the soil, the resources in the ground”. This strategy that is also supported by George Monbiot:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have the answer! Incredible as it might seem, I have stumbled across the single technology which will save us from runaway climate change! From the goodness of my heart I offer it to you for free. No patents, no small print, no hidden clauses. Already this technology, a radical new kind of carbon capture and storage, is causing a stir among scientists. It is cheap, it is efficient and it can be deployed straight away. It is called … leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

It’s the stop-what-you’re-doing principle again, isn’t it.

And if you can’t be bothered to read it all, here’s a short video of Bond on the topic:

The Big Melt-Down January 21, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Environment, Global warming.
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It’s not a good time to be a polar bear and if you live anywhere near the coast you should also start to be concerned, because the Earth’s polar ice caps are melting!

Research by an international team of scientists has shown that warm summers in recent years have caused the most extensive amount of Greenland ice melting in 50 years.

On the other side of the globe, the Antarctic ice sheet, which has ten times more ice than Greenland, is shrinking at an increasing rate – in 2007 it lost 75% more ice than in 1996!

Exactly what it all means, particularly how much sea level is going to rise due to this and how fast, is not clear as yet, but the prognosis is not good: Joseph Romm quotes research that shows that “during the last warm or interglacial period (the Eemian, about 120,000 years ago [when temperatures where 2 °C higher than today, which is where we’re headed by the year 2100]), … seas rose 1.6 meters per century”. That amount of sea level rise would displace an estimated 100 million people!

No aluminium smelter for Coega!? January 18, 2008

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, Climate change, Coega, Environment, Global warming, Press Release, South Africa.
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Here’s some good news for a change: after sustained protest by local activists, the ludicrous idea of building an energy guzzling aluminium smelter in the Eastern Cape might actually be shelved – hopefully for good!

Press Release: Eskom may Delay Alcan Smelter until 2013
Earthlife Africa Jhb
17th of January 2008

According to an article in today’s [17 Jan 2008] Business Report (“Shelve new projects, Eskom warns”), Eskom financial director is asking the Government to stop marketing South Africa as a low-cost electricity investment centre. This would include delaying, until 2013, the controversial and proposed Alcan aluminium smelter at Coega. The Alcan was the subject of intense civil society, local Port Elizabeth, and international opposition in 2007.

Eskom’s financial director, Mr. Bongani Nqwababa, is reported to have said, in regards to the Alcan smelter, that, “Eskom needs to review supply to Coega”, and that paying penalties for the delaying the project would be cheaper than building a new power station, which is what the proposed smelter would require.

Earthlife Africa Jhb welcomes this reasoned and enlightened viewpoint and hopes that this is the beginning of responsible energy supply planning, especially in the current climate of load shedding. Responsible energy planning requires demand management and industrial energy efficiency.

Next Wednesday, Cabinet meets to discuss energy supply problems. Earthlife Africa Jhb urges Cabinet to reject the tariff policy (the Developmental Electricity Pricing Programme (DEPP)) under which the 25-year contract with Alcan was signed. Abandoning the DEPP would help to ensure security of electricity supply for South Africa’s ordinary citizens.

As explained below, the DEPP ensures that contracts between the State and foreign corporations remain secret and not for public review. This is extremely anti-democratic.

The Energy Policy Officer of Earthlife Africa Jhb, Tristen Taylor, states, “The big question that should be asked when Eskom turns off the lights is; why, if Eskom can’t supply electricity to the citizens of this country, is it offering foreign companies large amounts of power at reduced tariffs? Must individuals and small businesses suffer so that large industries can be assured profit? It seems that Mr. Nqwababa understands these questions and has suggested it would be irresponsible to supply the Canadian multinational corporation Alcan before supplying electricity to the citizens and voters of this country.”

Alcan & Electricity Supply Background

Via the Developmental Electricity Pricing Programme, Eskom and the Government have committed themselves to large-scale supply of electricity to foreign companies at reduced tariffs; this at a time when Eskom struggles to supply citizens with electricity. Thirty percent of all South Africans are still not connected to the electricity grid.

The electricity supply deal to the Canadian aluminium-smelting firm Alcan was the first and to date the only deal to be signed under the DEPP.

For the past two years, Earthlife Africa Jhb has consistently called upon the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Department of Public Enterprises, Eskom and Alcan to disclose the details of electricity sales to Alcan for its proposed smelter. Both the South African Government and Alcan have hidden behind a profoundly anti-democratic clause in the Developmental Electricity Pricing Programme (DEPP). Alcan is the first foreign company to benefit from the DEPP, and has signed a 25-year deal for 1350MW supply of electricity. This represents about 4% of the entire country’s usage.

What is the DEPP? Essentially, the DEPP provides for uniquely discounted electricity tariffs for foreign industries that are heavy consumers of electricity (over 50MW) in South Africa. In return for investment in South Africa, the DEPP will ensure that electricity tariffs are internationally competitive (our nearest competitor is Australia, which sells electricity at US$0.053 per kWh and is 30% more expensive) and that the industry in question can achieve an profitable internal rate of return; i.e. if electricity is a major overhead (such as in aluminium smelting), it the tariff will be low enough to ensure profit.

This is a significant incentive for heavy industry to invest in South Africa and is supposed to provide significant jobs. However, what it really does is commit Eskom to tariffs for heavy industry at a rate lower (or, at most, on par with the next cheapest supplier of electricity) than anywhere else. It is, in effective, a subsidy for foreign industries, similar to a tax break or import duty waiver.

The most worrying factor about the DEPP is the “built-in” secrecy clause. Eskom is a public enterprise, ultimately owned by the citizenry at large. However, the DEPP guidelines ensure that any contracts signed under the DEPP are to remain secret. This is profoundly anti-democratic. The DEPP states (clause 12.1):

All officials, employees or members of the Department, the adjudication committee, NERSA, Eskom and non Eskom distributors shall regard as confidential all technical information, records, particularly any strategic commercial information and all knowledge that pertains to any project that applied for benefits in terms of DEPP, whether such information is recorded on paper or in an electronic manner.

The very next clause (12.2) in the guidelines bounds individuals with knowledge about the contracts to silence for the rest of their lives.

If the DEPP is a method for promoting growth and development in South Africa, why then the secrecy? Why shouldn’t this be in the public domain? This clause gives foreign corporations like Alcan the right to build electricity-intensive industrial plant in South Africa, get electricity on favourable terms in relation to their expected rate of return, and not to have to tell the country at large what rate they purchased electricity from the South African state. Further, this clause seems at odds with the spirit of the Promotion of Access to Information Act, through a pre-emptive strike against the releasing of information.

The DEPP deal with Alcan means that the citizens of this country won’t know the answers to the following questions:

* What is the price of electricity agreed upon by Alcan and Eskom?
* What are the conditions of supply of electricity?
* Will the price paid to Eskom cover the indirect costs of smelter? For example, the environmental group TWIG has calculated that the indirect costs of harm to the environment based on Eskom CO2 emissions to supply the smelter with electricity would be R6.4 billion.
For more information, please contact:

Tristen Taylor
Energy Policy Officer
Earthlife Africa-Johannesburg Branch
Tel: +27 11 339 3662
Fax: +27 11 339 3270
Cell: +27 84 250 2434
Email: tristen@earthlife.org.za

Save the Seapoint Promenade! January 17, 2008

Posted by Andreas in activism, Cape Town, South Africa.
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The Seapoint Promenade is under threat from developers once again. Plans for the area include a hotel and a three-storey shopping centre.

There are few Captonians who haven’t enjoyed a walk, run or a game of soccer on this beautiful stretch of urban coastline at some stage in their lives and many of continue to do so on a regular basis – my family goes for an evening swim at the glorious public swimming pool every week in summer.

I feel very strongly about preserving the area in its present form – it provides very cheap or free outdoor recreational options for all the people of this city in which spaces that are open to the public are forever under-resourced and shrinking (no more free picnics at Groot Constantia, for example!). And don’t talk to me about progress – if progress means more hotels and shopping malls, I’ll happily do without it, thank you very much.

If you feel the same, why not support the Seafront For All (SEAFA) initiative by signing their petition against new developments on the Seapoint Promenade here!

The Story of Stuff January 16, 2008

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", activism, Life, Politics, Society, Sustainable Living, Work.
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This is brilliant: a 20 minute animated film about the mad and completely unsustainable way humans extract resources from the Earth, produce stuff and then consume and trash it. Easy watching and highly recommended!

I am a bit perplexed by how this story can be told without ever mentioning the phrase “free-market capitalism” (come on, let’s call a spade a spade!) and naturally I have much less no faith in any government fixing this problem for us, but this is still a great little movie – watch it!