Message from NSTF Executive Director

Climate and other changes

December, which we thought was far in the future, is upon us. It brings the ANC Elective Conference that will determine our country’s future, Science Forum South Africa (#SFSA2017) – the huge annual event organised by the Department of Science and Technology (7-8 December 2017) – and of course Christmas shopping or holiday plans, or (hopefully) some well-earned rest.

‘Show me the evidence for Climate Change’ Discussion Forum: The talk (#Evidence4ClimateChange) by Prof Bob Scholes after our recent AGM (17 November 2017) was thought- and debate-provoking. Although the human contribution to global warming has been accepted as general knowledge by vast parts of global society for many years now, there is a new tendency to refute this common wisdom (led by the US President), as well as scepticism about the scientific evidence that informs the conclusion.

A-rated scientist, Prof Robert Scholes: Scholes reminded us of the critical state of the global climate and the complexity of earth’s various systems. He thoroughly unpacked the evidence for almost two hours. His credentials are such that he is one of the best experts in the world to elucidate this specialised science. We were fortunate and honoured indeed to listen to and to interact with him. Listen to his talk on YouTube if you missed the event.

No doubt about Climate Change basics: Although the scientific studies continue to tease out the details, there is no doubt about the basics – that dramatic climate change is taking place and that humankind bears substantial responsibility for it.

Trump denies causes of climate change: In the meantime, Donald Trump, arguably the most powerful leader in the world, continues to base his policies and choice of appointments in positions of influence, on his denial of climate change and its causes. Trump has, alas, remained true to his election promises – see Time magazine’s ‘Donald Trump’s Victory Could Mean Disaster for the Planet’.

Alaska as a site of contention: Trump wants the US to dominate the world in terms of energy generation – as though it is not already the case. He sees the US state of Alaska as key to achieving this ambition. It was recently announced that “Alaska is open for business” in clear reference to intensification of oil and gas exploration and extraction.

The problem is Alaska hosts an important wild life sanctuary, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1960. Also, Alaska lies partly in the Arctic circle. Since warming is taking place at about double the rate in the Arctic circle than in the rest of the world, the habitat of various species is already threatened. What happens at the Arctic and Antarctica has a dramatic effect on global climate change in any case.

Pausing agreements with IPPs: Back home in SA, the plans for our energy future seem to be in disarray. Although energy generation’s effect on global warming is accepted in various government policies, the process of agreements with Independent Power Producers (IPPs) has been paused. IPPs are deploying forms of renewable energy. This brings to a screeching halt the innovative developments over the past few years, as well as the growth of related SMMEs.

Lack of alignment to clean energy: Instead, the Minister announced last year that IPPs in the coal energy generation space are again being supported. Welcome as this is for small producers, it is not aligned to the country’s expressed commitment to clean energy. Even the Minister said so, in the very same statement: “The Minister also emphasised that while South Africa’s energy build plan still incorporates the development of fossil fuel assets in the foreseeable future, the department is committed to transition to a low-carbon economy, with priority to be given to clean energy alternatives, subject to current technological and cost constraints”.

No money for nuclear but still implementing? The nuclear build programme, which our finance minister Malusi Gigaba has stated the country cannot afford, looks to be on track for implementation. Not that nuclear energy generation is all bad for the environment and it should have a neutral effect on climate change.

It certainly will be more beneficial to SA and to the planet than the vast coal burning operations we continue (and will continue into the foreseeable future regardless of other developments). But the bottom line is whether the country can afford the nuclear initiative, particularly in terms of servicing the enormous debt burden it will bring, and the downgrades by rating agencies which continue unabated.

Eskom showcasing research into renewable energies: Eskom has been in the news (and still is) for all the wrong reasons (including some of the above). Corruption and State Capture have made it challenging for the rank and file at the utility to rebuild its public image and carry out its mandate. However, at a recent Industry Stakeholder Review Session on 22 November 2017, held by Eskom’s Research, Technology and Development division (RT&D), an impressive portfolio of research into renewable energies was showcased.

The research and innovation work of the utility thus continues, with dedicated and hardworking researchers, led by a forward-looking vision. Funding for this work is woefully inadequate. It is hoped that Eskom will clean up its governance as soon as possible to get back to its critical work, and that the allocation for RT&D will be increased.

One can also hope that the trend towards environmentally friendly but efficient energy supplies, demonstrated in their R&D, will influence the decisions of top management substantially enough to make a difference to South Africa as a whole. See ‘Eskom sets sights on renewable energy storage’ for an example of the Centre’s work.

Happy holidays: From all of us at the NSTF office and on our Committees, we wish our readers and members a blessed and safe festive and holiday season!