Closing the gap: The lost 20%

September 17th, 2014, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: Energize, Featured: EE Publishers


I have worked in the energy sector for many years and have found that this sector is as vulnerable to “fashionable trends” as any other. One may remember that acid rain was a driving force in the 1980s and had a great influence on decision makers in the electricity sector.  Today the focus is on global warming, and acid rain is yesterday’s news. Perhaps in a few more years acid rain will become so “retro” that it will be fashionable again.

Brian Statham

Brian Statham

Seriously, over the past two decades the popular measures of sustainability have been decreasing in diversity and have become more narrowly focussed. The consequence of this narrow focus has been a widely held, but distorted, view that sustainability is simply a matter of climate change and, more specifically, the influence of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

I believe that sustainability means the ability of mankind, animals and plants to continue indefinitely to co-exist on planet Earth. This is a much more complex view and requires the analysis of integrated systems and the assessment of trade-offs.

It is not sufficient to compare two energy systems on the basis of relative carbon emissions and express an opinion on their desirability from a sustainability point of view. We have to also consider financial cost, economic cost, land use, water use, mineral use, impact on animal and plant life, safety, convenience, risks and a host of other measures before we can express a rational view on their relative merits from a sustainability perspective.

My fear is that South Africa slavishly follows the “fashion trend” and fails to recognise that it is a sovereign nation with a unique set of sustainability issues. Just as our clothing fashion is six months out of phase with the fashion trends of Europe (because of seasonal differences) so too must our energy decisions be based on our national context, rather than a lazy imitation of developed nations’ mantra.

I am not for one minute suggesting that climate change issues are not important but I am questioning whether they should be the highest priority issues facing our country.

We claim to be one of the leading countries on the African continent and we believe we have earned the right to be a serious player in global fora. We are proud of our achievements but we seem to forget that 20% of South Africans still have no connection to a formal energy supply, and lack access to basic water, sanitation, healthcare and education services.

I am disappointed that even with all the scientific, technological, economic and social development of the past 150 years we, the global community, have failed to provide formal energy services to all people. Until we achieve that objective we cannot talk about global energy security. I am not optimistic that this will be achieved any time soon. Self-interest is a powerful force which impacts decision-making at individual, community, national and regional levels. The reality is that those with the knowledge, technology and financial resources are failing to deliver substantial progress in terms of universal energy security because they lack the vital driver of “desperation”. This inhibits their ability to be innovative and creative in finding ways to overcome the many difficulties which stand between today’s situation and a secure future. Self-interest priorities take precedence over the plight of others.

If we cannot achieve energy security, we have no hope of achieving sustainability. People will legitimately aspire to a better quality of life for themselves and their children. Their desperation will lead to informal migration and urbanisation with all the attendant social problems which accompany it. This is certainly not a path towards sustainability.

Those who don’t migrate will make do with whatever energy sources they can find. This is likely to be foraged biomass with the consequent risk to both flora and fauna. This too is not conducive to a sustainable future.

There is no one energy source which scores favourably against all these measures and therefore the choice of an energy / fuel mix is a matter of trade-offs. The diversity of geographic regions, and the varied aspirations of the communities within those regions, will determine the value assigned to various competing impacts or outcomes. There is no unique ideal mix. Each country or region will have its own solution.

It is therefore very important that South Africa has the courage and the wisdom to honestly evaluate its own position and performance relative to the complete suite of measures of sustainability. This will allow us to rationally develop a set of priorities for the country which will launch us onto the path towards a truly sustainable future.

In doing so we must take the lessons from business that only four to five priorities can sensibly receive attention at the same time. Other urgent issues will have to wait their turn.

It is my contention that an individual, or a family unit, cannot be sustained unless it has sufficient economic activity to resource itself. Therefore the first set of priorities has to be the provision of water and sanitation, healthcare, education, communication and transport services to enable participation in economic activity. None of this will happen without secure and affordable energy.

Therefore the national priority, from a sustainability perspective, should be universal energy security.

It will require South Africa to have a pragmatic mix of energy supply technologies and a pragmatic mix of public and private sector participants to achieve this objective. In particular, support sectors such as finance and legal will need to demonstrate innovative thinking to develop solutions matched to this national priority.

As a nation, South Africans need to align themselves behind this manageable set of priorities with a sense of urgency and pride. We will have to declare our intentions, measure our progress, and courageously resist pressure to fall in line with “fashion”. This will require unprecedented courage and vision from our leaders in both the public and private sectors with support from political, NGO, labour and religious organisations.

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