Fracking, climate change and greed February 6, 2013Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, Global warming, South Africa.
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Fracking, climate change and greed
(This column was first published on 2013-01-29 at News24 here)
The global fracking boom is gaining momentum. It’s in full swing in America. China, a country with shale gas reserves comparable to those of the USA, is preparing to establish its own massive fracking industry. The British government has recently lifted an earlier suspension of fracking activities and green-lighted a controversial new gas generation strategy. In South Africa, we’re ready to join the fray.
In trying to persuade us that these are positive developments, the oil and gas industry would have us believe that shale gas produced by fracking is:
a) a low-carbon energy solution that generates less greenhouse gasses (GHGs) than other fossil fuels,
b) a bridging fuel to a future low-carbon economy, and
c) an invaluable tool in the fight against climate change.
Each of these assertions deserves some scrutiny.
A low-carbon fossil fuel?
While shale gas, just like conventional natural gas, burns more cleanly than oil or coal, there is considerable scientific debate over whether it has a smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels when all the stages in its production are taken into consideration.
In the first peer-reviewed paper on methane emissions from fracking wells, a group of researchers led by Cornell University professor Robert Howarth argued that such wells leak up to twice as much methane, a much more potent GHG than CO2, than conventional gas wells, resulting in emissions comparable to those associated with coal. These results have been disputed by a number of other scientists, but Howarth has defended his findings, stating “that for most uses, the GHG footprint of shale gas is greater than that of other fossil fuels on time scales of up to 100 years”.
A new study has brought into question the rate of methane leakage in natural gas fields in general. The authors found that as much as 4% of all the methane produced at a field near Denver disappeared into thin air – that’s about twice the rate claimed by industry. At a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December, they presented additional data from Colorado and Utah suggesting leakages of up to 9%. These measurements exclude any losses from pipelines and distribution systems.
The figures are important: in April last year, scientists showed that electricity generated by burning natural gas only has immediate climate change benefits if the total leakage from production is below 3.2%.
A bridging fuel?
Shale gas could only possibly be considered as a transitional source of energy to a low-carbon economy if there was, in fact, an unbridgeable gap that needed crossing. There isn’t and the argument is a red herring.
Numerous reports have shown that currently available renewable energy technology is perfectly capable of satisfying most if not all of our power requirements by 2050. A small recent sampling includes studies by the US National Energy Laboratory, some of Europe’s most distinguished renewable energy experts and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation.
The transition to a cleaner, low-emission economy based on renewable energy sources – with which we are richly blessed in SA – requires political will, not a push to exploit more fossil fuels.
A weapon against climate change?
Instead of saving us from global warming, shale gas stands to push us over the edge.
According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2012, no more than a third of the world’s proven reserves of all fossil fuels – not just shale gas – can be consumed before 2050 if we’re to have a 50% chance of constraining average temperature increase to 2oC above pre-industrial levels and maintain a reasonably stable climate. More conservative estimates argue that, to be safe, 80% of fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground.
The bottom line is simple: if we dig up all of the shale gas beneath our feet, the planet fries.
That should be a good enough reason not to, but to the oil and gas companies the stuff simply represents profits waiting to be liberated. If you believe they will stop drilling holes into the ground before they’ve got it all or before the weather turns nasty, you’re dreaming.
A refreshingly honest summation of the industry’s greedy rationale by Professor Terry Engelder, a geologist at Pennsylvania State University, published in Nature in 2011 says it all: “Fracking is crucial to global economic stability [read “money in our pocketses”]; the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks”.
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We’ve got too much coal
(This column was first published on 2013-01-21 at News24 here)
If you’re under the impression that the age of coal is over, you’d better think again. In December, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report which forecasts that coal will challenge oil as the world’s biggest source of energy within the next five years. With China and India taking the lead, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven announced that we will be burning about 1.2 billion more tonnes of the black stuff in 2017 than today – “equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined.”
South Africa is right in the middle of the global coal industry. In fact, we have way more of the stuff than is good for us: some 28 billion tons of proven reserves, which at the current annual mining rate of around 253 million tons will only be depleted in 110 years.
“That’s a good thing!” you might say. “After all, much of this country’s industrial economy and wealth were built on the back of easily accessible, cheap coal.”
There have been some massive downsides too, however, including air pollution, acid rain and a per capita carbon footprint rivalling those of many developed countries. About 70% of the coal mined in South Africa is used domestically and approximately 70% of that is burned in power stations to generate almost all of our electricity. Most of the rest (20%) is turned into synthetic petroleum products by SASOL.
The pesky fact that our coal-burning habit has us pumping huge quantities of climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere every year is becoming a major headache.
In international climate change negotiations, the SA government has committed itself to doing its share to keep average global temperature rise to below 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels, a figure that may prevent run-away climate change – if we’re lucky. Government endorsed a set of Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS) for transforming the economy to achieve this goal.
In its National Climate Response White Paper published in October 2011, government announced that within two years, carbon budgets would be drawn up for those sectors of the economy that emit significant quantities of greenhouse gasses. These carbon budgets will define the emissions allowable under the 2oC regime.
Based on one of the scenarios included in the LTMS – the one “required by science” to make the 2oC target – WWF-SA has estimated a total greenhouse gas emissions budget for the country for the period from 2010 and 2050 of about 16.4 GtCO2e (gigatons of CO2 equivalent), meaning that during those 40 years, we can afford to emit greenhouse gasses equivalent to a grand total of 16.4 billion tons of CO2 if we want stand a decent chance of maintaining a reasonably stable climate. This figure includes all of our emissions, not just those due to coal.
So how does our coal industry stack up in this calculus? Not well at all, I’m afraid.
A recent report compiled by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and commissioned by WWF calculates that at current rates, a total of at least 19.2 GtCO2e of South African coal reserves will be used locally between 2010 and 2050. In other words, if we carry on as we are now, just the coal we’ll burn during this period is going to produce the equivalent of nearly three billion more tons of CO2 than we’re aloud to emit if we are to stay within our climate-safe budget.
And those are conservative figures. SA coal miners, including Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Exxaro and SASOL, are investing in the development of their as yet unproven coal resources. If only a third of these actually come into production, the report says, this would add another 19 GtCO2e of emissions.
I for one am intrigued to find out exactly what share of the national carbon budget government is planning to allocate to coal by October this year. The bottom line is simple though: if our coal industry continues to operate as it is now and if we as a nation remain shackled to it, our chances of making an effective contribution to halting climate change are zero.
Climate change: An update December 5, 2012Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.
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Climate change: An update
(This column was first published on 2012-11-26 at News24 here)
There has been overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change for years. A recent survey found that out of 13 950 peer-reviewed scientific papers published on the topic between the beginning of 1991 and the beginning of last month, only 24 argued against human-induced global warming.
The amount of research generated in this field is massive, but little of it ever makes it into the mainstream media (I don’t know if that’s because editors are bored with the subject or just overwhelmed by it), which is why I thought it would be a useful exercise to highlight a few of the most recent findings and forecasts. This is by no means a comprehensive review, merely a bullet-pointed précis to give you an inkling of how much trouble we’re in. Click on the links for more details on the assorted items.
– Records of average global temperatures show a consistent warming trend for the last three decades and according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation, 2012 is expected to be the ninth warmest year since records began in 1880.
– Atmospheric CO2 concentrations reached a record high of 390.9 parts per million in 2011 – that’s a 40% increase since the start of the industrial revolution.
– Sea level rose by about 3.2mm per year between 1993 and 2011, significantly faster than previously estimated. Highlighting the long-term impacts of climate change, worst-case scenarios predict up to 6.8 metres of sea level rise by the year 3000.
– This year, the inhabitants of Vunidogoloa on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu became some of the first people in the world to be relocated to higher ground because seal level rise has made their seaside village uninhabitable.
– The destruction of mangrove forests, salt marshes, sea grass beds and other coastal ecosystems releases between 150 million and 1.02 billion tons of CO2 annually, several times more than previously thought.
– The world’s largest reinsurance company, MunichRe, has warned that risk from climate change related natural disasters is rising globally and local insurers agree. Insured losses from such events have risen from $9bn in the 1980s to $36bn in the 2000s.
– Significantly reduced rainfall during Asia’s annual monsoon season is predicted for the next two centuries with potentially devastating impacts on agriculture in the region.
– In November, the planet’s most powerful investors, managing some $22.5 trillion between them, wrote an open letter to the governments of major countries, warning that climate change is a major threat to the world economy.
– Slashing 1.6% off the global GDP, climate change has been estimated to cost the world economymore than $1.2 trillion every year and according to a recent World Bank report, it’s the poorest countries that will suffer most.
– The effects of climate change on the world’s oceans are forecast to lead to a severe drop in fish stocks and a shrinkage of 14-24% in the size of adult fishes by 2050.
– Pollen counts are expected to more than double by 2040 and in combination with highly allergenic new strains of pollen from invasive species, hay fever season may be extended by weeks.
– With the disappearance of much of the bamboo they feed on, the natural habitat of the giant panda in China may be lost by the end of the century.
– Diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks, fungi and algae, including Lyme disease, the West Nile virus, Chikungunya Fever, Rift Valley Fever and Dengue Fever are already spreading to areas where they were not found in the past.
– The collapse of the southern Caribbean’s sardine fisheries during the past decade has been linked to climate change.
– Wild Arabica coffee, indigenous to East Africa, may become extinct within 70 years.
– While warming temperatures and increased levels of CO2 in the air may improve agricultural production in some regions, an 8% average decrease in the yield of eight major crops, including maize, millet, sorghum and wheat, is predicted for Africa and South Asia by the 2050s.
– Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Climate change and the Garden Route November 29, 2012Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.
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Climate change and the Garden Route
(This column was first published on 2012-11-26 at News24 here)
I wonder how many of you know that today’s the first day of COP 18, the UN climate change conference in Doha. It’s the sequel to COP 17 in Durban last year, which was the sequel to COP 16 in Cancún the year before, which was the sequel to COP 15 in Copenhagen, which was the sequel to… etc., etc. I wonder how many of you really care.
These conferences seem to produce more hot air than tangible results and even if you follow environmental issues in the news with interest, climate change always seems to be happening somewhere else, far away – in the atmosphere, where average global temperatures are rising, on the US East Coast, where storms are getting more vicious, and in the thawing Arctic.
But what about us, here on the southern tip of Africa? There’s a real shortage of news about exactly how climate change is going to affect our lives. Which is why I was quite excited to come across a report that analyses what’s in store for an area loved by many South Africans, the Garden Route. It was actually published last year, but it’s still very relevant now.
The study, a collaboration between the WWF, the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative, researchers from UCT and the CSIR, and Santam, was motivated by the fact that the insurance industry is having to deal with a growing number of damage claims resulting from natural disasters. It considers the impact of climate change in the Western Cape’s Eden District Municipality which includes Gouritsmond, Mossel Bay, George, Sedgefield, Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
Here are the findings in a nutshell:
– Winter and spring temperatures in the region have risen by about 1.4 degrees Celsius over the past hundred years and are predicted to increase by a further 1 degree Celsius by 2040.
– The number of high fire risk periods, particularly during winter, is forecast to increase by around 41% for the period between 2020 and 2050 when compared to 1960 to 1990.
– There are expected to be significantly more intense rainfall days (more than 20mm) between 2020 and 2050 compared to 1960 to 1990. For the winter months, a 36% increase is predicted.
– With a sea level rise of a metre expected by 2100, extreme wave run-up events are predicted to increase by six times (wave run-up, which refers to the maximum vertical level above the still water line reached by wave uprush on the shoreline, can cause significant erosion).
Interestingly, the report highlights the fact that the impacts of humans on the natural environment in the region are of equal or greater importance than the expected effects of climate change itself. The authors point out that:
– the introduction of invasive alien trees has increased the number of fire risk areas by over 30%;
– the degradation of wetlands and riparian zones along rivers, large fires in commercial forest plantations, as well as the clear-felling of such plantations without active rehabilitation, have all diminished the environment’s natural capacity to effectively deal with major rainfall events; and
– the destruction of foredunes has reduced natural protection against storm surges and sea level rise.
While this may all be rather depressing, there’s good news, too: “proactive management and restoration of these ecological systems has the potential to offset most of the future increases in risk related to climatic changes.”
In other words, if fire-prone invasive trees in the area are eradicated or managed more effectively, if wetlands and riparian zones are rehabilitated and if foredunes are repaired and protected, we’ll go a long way towards offsetting the expected effects of climate change.
That doesn’t sound very hard to accomplish. And while you and I have no chance of influencing the multilateral talks at COP 18, we are much more likely to make an impression locally. If we live on the Garden Route or go on holiday there, we can talk to others about these protective measures, get actively involved with organisations which are already working to implement them and raise awareness about their importance among public servants and representatives on the municipal level.
– Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Climate change: game over? November 19, 2012Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming.
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Climate change: game over?
(This column was first published on 2012-11-13 at News24 here)
Climate change didn’t enter the 2012 US presidential elections as a topic worth debating until superstorm Sandy knocked out the nation’s most populous city. But before we point accusing fingers at those clueless Americans, we should ask ourselves how serious we and our own government have taken this issue.
For years, the vast majority of the world’s climate scientists have warned that we need to restrict average global temperature increases to a maximum of 2oC above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change.
At COP-15, the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen, this 2oC target was officially agreed on by the signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Many experts now believe that the target is too high and that we should be aiming at 1.5 oC to be safe.
A new analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicts that we’re headed for 6oC by the end of this century. According to the international accounting firm’s Low Carbon Economy Index 2012, entitled “Too late for two degrees?”, the pace of reducing global emissions of greenhouse gasses has been way too slow.
While reductions in the carbon intensity (i.e. the emissions per unit of GDP) of countries like the UK, Germany and France reached rates as high as 6% or more in 2010-2011, they appear to have stalled in the world’s emerging economies. The so-called E7 group of countries (China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey) now emit more than the G7 countries (USA, France, UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada).
According to the PwC report, the global economy has to decrease its collective carbon intensity by a massive 5.1% annually until the year 2050 to stand a chance of achieving the 2oC target – a rate never achieved in any single year since World War 2. “Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation,” says the study.
So does this mean that we’re toast? That the 2oC target is a pipedream and that we’re doomed to follow the Ancient Maya in succumbing to drastic climate change?
Not quite yet, but we do need to urgently decide how we are going to respond to this depressing news? It seems to me that we have three options. Take your pick:
1. Business as usual
There are a number of reasons why you might think that we should simply carry on burning oil, gas and coal, regardless of the consequences:
– you don’t believe in climate change in the first place;
– you think that any detrimental effects have been vastly exaggerated;
– you have faith in the powers of the “free market” to sort things out in the end;
– you’re looking forward to the long-awaited collapse of capitalism;
– you believe that global warming is a natural phenomenon that humans can’t do anything about; or
– you just don’t give a damn.
2. Addressing the symptoms
You may argue that we should focus our attention on:
– developing technologies to help us and future generations adapt to life on a warming planet;
– capturing and safely storing enough of the carbon we pump into the atmosphere to mitigate our continued reliance on fossil fuels; or
– searching for geoengineering solutions, like dumping iron dust into the oceans to stimulate CO2-trapping plankton blooms, or launching space mirrors to shield us from the sun’s radiation.
3. Tackling the causes
Like most environmentalists you may believe that the way to go is to transition to a low-carbon economy by:
– maximising energy efficiency; and
– replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy alternatives such as wind and solar power.
Personally, I’ve long been a supporter of option 3, but a considerable need for adaptation to the symptoms of climate change now seems inevitable. The authors of the PwC index agree, calling for “radical transformations in the way the global economy currently functions: rapid uptake of renewable energy, sharp falls in fossil fuel use or massive deployment of CCS [carbon capture and storage], removal of industrial emissions and halting deforestation.”
Which option do you choose?
– Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
Gasland Karoo April 21, 2011Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Fracking, South Africa.
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(This column was first published on 2011-02-16 at News24 here)
I have seen the future of the Karoo and it looks grim.
No, I haven’t turned clairvoyant overnight, but I did just watch Gasland, the Oscar-nominated documentary about extracting natural gas from underground shale formations in the United States.
In most cases, the extent of environmental disasters only becomes apparent with hindsight, when it’s too late. On precious few occasions do we get an inkling of what environmental impact an activity is likely to have because others have done us the dubious favour of acting as guinea pigs. By highlighting the devastating effects a hideously messy gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is having in the US, Gasland affords us a chilling vision of what is going to happen to the Karoo if Royal Dutch Shell and others, who have started to explore for gas shales in the region, have their way.
When an oil and gas company offers Josh Fox, the film’s director, nearly $100 000 to lease his piece of land located above the huge Marcellus Shale Formation in Pennsylvania, he sets out on a cross-country tour that opens his eyes to the dangers of fracking. The technique, which involves injecting millions of litres of water, sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals into boreholes at high pressure to release natural gas trapped in layers of gas shale as tiny bubbles, was developed by the American company Halliburton.
In 2005, then US Vice President Dick Cheney, who just happened to have been Halliburton’s Chairperson and CEO between 1995 and 2000, helped to push an Energy Bill through Congress that exempted the activities of oil and gas companies from the existing Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and various other environmental laws and regulations. Known as the “Halliburton loophole”, this opened the floodgates on one of the most destructive episodes of natural resource exploitation in history.
Confronted with some 450 000 fracking wells in 34 states, Fox documents a litany of complaints from people living near gas drilling operations: domestic groundwater wells contaminated with natural gas, fracking chemicals and other toxins; farm animals losing hair and weight; chronic headaches and more debilitating human health problems; hazardous air pollution; open wastewater pits; hugely increased truck traffic; mini refineries, pipelines and storage facilities at every well site; natural gas bubbling from formerly pristine creeks; and, perhaps most notoriously, several households whose tap water can be set alight. We can look forward to all of these in the Karoo!
The gas industry doesn’t think there’s a problem. Fracking is adequately regulated, poses no real threat to underground drinking water, doesn’t need to be investigated any further and reports to the contrary are incorrect, they say. Pro-drilling groups like Energy in Depth have gone as far as writing a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences telling them that Gasland should be ineligible for a best documentary feature Oscar, prompting Fox to publicly defend the validity of his film in a point-by-point rebuttal.
There are several parallels between what has happened in the US and what may well happen in the Karoo: stunningly beautiful big-sky landscapes, sparsely inhabited by salt-of-the-earth type people, sitting on a petrified ocean of gas billions. If American regulators were unable to protect their citizens and environment from an industry that’s clearly under-funded in the moral conscience department, what are our chances of saving the Karoo from a similar fate?
In the words of Lisa Bracken, who appears in Gasland:
“The corporate business model is to come into an area, develop it as fast as you can and if you trash anything you make the people who you impact prove it. You make ‘em argue it in a court of law and the last person standing gets bought off and you move on.”
It’s not too late to prevent the Karoo from turning into another Gasland. The time to stop this unique, ecologically fragile, historically, archaeologically and geologically invaluable national treasure from being trashed for a few dirty gas dollars is right now!
Gasland screenings in Cape Town March 7, 2011Posted by Andreas in Cape Town, Climate change, Environment, Film screening, Fracking, Global warming, Press Release, South Africa.
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Gasland, the Oscar-nominated documentary about fracking – an environmentally destructive method of natural gas exploitation that may be used in the Karoo soon – will be shown at:
The Labia on Orange cinema in Cape Town on Monday 21 March at 6:15pm, on Tuesday 22 March at 8:30pm and on Wednesday 23 March at 6:15pm
The Bioscope Independent Cinema in Johannesburg on Monday 4 April at 8.00pm, Tuesday 5 April at 8.00pm and on Friday 8 April at 8.00pm.
Part verite travelogue, part expose, part mystery, part bluegrass banjo meltdown, part showdown – Gasland is the must-see documentary of the year!
The largest natural gas drilling boom in history has swept across the United States. The drilling technology of “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing has unlocked a “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” just beneath the country. But is fracking safe?
When filmmaker Josh Fox is asked to lease his land for drilling, he embarks on a cross-country odyssey uncovering a trail of secrets, lies and contamination. A recently drilled town in the neighbourhood reports that residents are able to light their drinking water on fire. This is just one of the many absurd and astonishing revelations of a new country Fox calls Gasland.
This documentary is particularly relevant to South Africans because Royal Dutch Shell and other local and international oil and gas companies are about to start exploring for natural gas in the Karoo. The fracking technique that will be used for extracting this gas is extremely water-intensive and known to cause devastating groundwater pollution. Watching Gasland is a bit like watching the Karoo of the future – if we allow fracking to happen here!
The screenings will be followed by a facilitated audience discussion.
Tickets for the screenings at the Labia can be reserved by calling 021 424 5927. Tickets for the screenings at The Bioscope can be booked online at www.thebioscope.co.za or by calling 087 830 0445. We strongly recommended that you reserve tickets to avoid disappointment.
This event is presented by the Labia, http://www.fractual.co.za, a South African anti-fracking website, Earthlife Africa Cape Town and While You Were Sleeping, a Cape Town-based non-profit film collective committed to bringing progressive, non-mainstream documentaries with important social, political and environmental messages to South African audiences.
021 424 5927
087 830 0445
Official film website:
While You Were Sleeping:
Stop Fracking in the Karoo February 16, 2011Posted by Andreas in activism, Climate change, Environment, Fracking, Global warming, South Africa.
Large parts of South Africa’s beautiful, but water-poor and ecologically sensitive Karoo region are under threat of being devastated by mining operations to extract natural gas using a controversial technique called hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’.
During fracking millions of litres of water, sand and numerous chemicals most of which are toxic, carcinogic as well as teratogenic (they include benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), diesel fuel, naphthalene (moth ball) compounds, boric acid, arsenic, poly nuclear organic hydrocarbons, only to name a few of 500-odd chemicals used), are pumped into boreholes at high pressure to release natural gas (called shale gas) trapped in layers of underground rock.
In the USA, where fracking has been used extensively, there have been hundreds of documented cases of this process resulting in:
– catastrophic drinking water pollution;
– air pollution;
– health concerns for humans and animals; and
– general environmental degradation.
Right now, Shell and other international and local companies are preparing to explore tens of thousands of square kilometres of land in South Africa for natural gas exploration by fracking. Most of the area under threat is already extremely water-stressed and can not afford any water to be either wasted or contaminated by the fracking process which, once in full production, may involve tens of thousands of boreholes and billions of litres of water.
There is a growing groundswell of opposition to the use of fracking in South Africa by a broad coalition of farmers, environmental organisations and ordinary citizens.
If you are concerned about the likely environmental and health impacts of natural gas exploitation in our country, please join us in adding your name to the following petition.
We, the undersigned:
Call on national, provincial and municipal government to institute a moratorium on all on-shore exploration and exploitation of natural gas in South Africa, especially any operations involving hydraulic fracturing, at least until comprehensive, independent, scientific assessments can guarantee that such exploration and exploitation activities will not lead to detrimental environmental or health effects and until independent and efficient measures are in place to monitor all shale gas exploration and exploitation.
Call on Royal Dutch Shell and other international and South African companies to refrain from endangering the environmental integrity of the Karoo and the health of its inhabitants by engaging in shale gas exploration and extraction using hydraulic fracturing technology.
Please sign the petition here and spread the word!
Find out more about fracking here:
Fractual – a South African website about fracking. Register on the site to receive a regular newsletter about the latest local and international developments.
Gasland – an Oscar-nominated documentary about fracking in the USA
The great biofuel delusion February 2, 2011Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, rant, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
The great biofuel delusion
(This column was first published on 2010-11-24 at News24 here)
Have you ever thought about what you are going to put in your car’s tank when petrol becomes prohibitively expensive as the world’s oil supplies start to dry up? And have you ever worried about the fact that the greenhouse gasses emitted by the car you drive every day make a massive contribution to climate change?
“No worries,” you say. “We’ll just convert all of our cars to run on biofuels!”
Indeed, biodiesel and bioethanol are often portrayed as the green and sustainable answer to our transport woes in an oil-free future. But how viable and eco-friendly are such biofuels really?
A wide variety of plant materials, from maize and soyabeans to sugar cane and various grasses can be converted into biofuels. They can either be mixed with conventional diesel or petrol, or (with relatively minor modifications to the car) used in undiluted form to power a combustion engine. Their promise lies in the fact that the raw materials can be grown commercially like any other agricultural crop and that they should, in theory, be carbon neutral, absorbing as much CO2 during growth as they emit when burned as fuel.
Biofuels under scrutiny
Many countries have started to promote the use of biofuels as part of their commitment to reducing greenhouses gas (GHG) emissions and combating climate change. Member states of the EU, for instance, are legally required to derive 10% of their transport fuels from renewable sources that cut GHG emissions compared to fossil fuels by 2020. South Africa’s draft biofuel strategy calls for a mandatory 4.5% biofuel component in road transport fuel by 2013.
In recent years, however, biofuels have come under increasing scrutiny and overall prospects are not looking good. Since most biofuels are currently made from food crops including maize and vegetable oils, it is now widely acknowledged that they have contributed significantly to worldwide increases in food prices.
In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, huge new palm oil plantations established specifically for biodiesel production have led to deforestation and the draining of peatlands, destroying valuable ecosystems and biodiversity and releasing large amounts of GHGs. Experiments with Jatropha, a promising non-food tree crop have experienced low-yields and crop failures in various countries.
Studies have shown that there simply isn’t enough arable land to quench our fuel-thirst on biofuels. If current US and EU biofuel targets were to be met domestically, almost all of the soy and maize grown in North America would have to be used and Europe would be left with only about a third of its farmland to grow food on.
Proponents argue that compared to fossil fuels, biofuels reduce GHG emission by as much as 50%, but these numbers don’t stand up to scrutiny. A 2007 study suggests that because of their extensive use of fertilisers that emit nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, European farmers who grow rapeseed for biodiesel production would do better if they planted trees and let regular diesel be used instead.
In the USA, maize-based bioethanol has been shown to require as much or more energy to produce than it releases when burnt and may actually cause GHG emissions to almost double instead of reducing them. Recent research suggests that the same is true for algae, another promising biofuel feedstock.
A dead end
Earlier this month, a study commissioned by the Institute for European Environmental Policy estimated that in order to meet the EU’s 2020 biofuel targets, an additional 4.1 to 6.9 million hectares of land will have to be cultivated – much of it in developing countries – resulting in 80 to 167% more GHG emissions than if the demand was met through fossil fuels.
The verdict? Biofuels are a dead end.
While they can provide a limited amount of truly green and sustainable transport fuel, biofuels will never be able to satisfy our current fossil fuel addiction. Electric vehicles powered by renewable solar and wind energy, once they are widely available, are a much better bet. But ultimately, I suspect, we’re asking the wrong question.
We shouldn’t be obsessed about how to replace our profligate consumption of one resource with that of another, but with how we can drastically reduce the use of such resources altogether and live more sustainably.
Rights for rivers and mountains? January 18, 2011Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Column, Environment, Global warming, Society, Sustainable Living.
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Rights for rivers and mountains?
(This column was first published on 2010-11-10 at News24 here)
Should nature and its constituent parts – animals, plants, rivers and valleys – have legally recognised rights comparable to those of humans?
Not too long ago nobody who mattered in the world (ie mostly rich white males) would have dreamed of considering women as being equal to men or black people as being people at all. Today, these concepts are well entrenched human rights, recognised and defended by all but the most barbaric throwbacks.
These days, very few of the people who matter in the world (ie mostly rich white males) would seriously consider extending legal rights to nature. But so-called Earth rights are gradually forcing themselves onto the global enviro-political agenda.
South Africans should be at the forefront of the debate. It was a Cape Town lawyer, Cormac Cullinan, who in 2002 published Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice, which remains the seminal book on the topic. Cullinan has been instrumental in helping to disseminate the concept of Earth rights and turning it into a lived reality internationally, but you’re much more likely to have heard of him if you’re Bolivian than if you’re a Saffer.
The ideas behind Earth rights aren’t complicated, but for most of us they will require a major shift in mindset. Our planet as a whole is conceived of as a self-regulating, self-sustaining community of interrelated and interdependent natural entities that includes human beings, rather than simply as a collection of individual components which humans are entitled to exploit for their exclusive benefit.
The basis for this way of looking at the world is not some New Age tree-hugging esoterica, but sound scientific, ecological reasoning. The long-term survival of a complex, integrated, living system is crucially dependent on an equilibrated balance between all of its constituent parts. If humans continue to insist on dominating, polluting and unsustainably exploiting the larger natural system of which we are a part, we will ultimately be responsible for its destruction and for our own demise. Earth rights are an attempt to formally and legally balance the rights and responsibilities of humans against those of the other members of the natural community that makes up our planet.
In recent times these ideas have started to gain international prominence. In 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to adopt a constitution that recognises the rights of nature and April of this year saw the first World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia at which Earth rights took centre stage.
Faced with the threat of climate change, but frustrated by the lack of political will and action from developed countries and the dismal performance of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Accord, more than 30 000 participants from 140 countries produced a draft for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and a People’s Agreement which were subsequently submitted to the UN by the Bolivian government.
The Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, in the drafting of which Cullinan played a leading role, asserts that humans are members of an indivisible, self-regulating community of interrelated beings”, each of which has an inherent right to water, clean air, health, freedom from contamination, pollution, toxic or radioactive waste and detrimental genetic modification. It asserts that humans have an obligation to act in accordance with these rights.
The proposals from the World People’s Conference go far beyond the weak rhetoric of Copenhagen, demanding a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emission in developed countries by 2017, a one degree limit on global temperature increase during this century, payment of climate debts and compensation to developing countries, the establishment of a Tribunal of Climate and Environmental Justice and a rejection of carbon markets as a mechanism for dealing with climate change. Capitalism, as a system premised on endless growth on a finite planet, was identified as incompatible with life itself and an underlying structural cause of climate change and environmental degradation.
Call me an idiot (again), but I for one hope that Earth rights grow from the militant groundswell they represent today into a universal principle to stand alongside human rights before it’s too late.