Greenpeace: The relentless fight to save the globe

Melita Steele, Climate and Energy Campaigner, Greenpeace Africa, speaks to Elizabeth Hira of CIVICUS

Melita Steele has been with Greenpeace Africa as a climate and energy campaigner for a year and a half. She holds a Masters degree in Environmental Science and worked as an environmental consultant before coming to Greenpeace. She spoke to CIVICUS about the South African government's stance on climate change and the realities of energy and possibility in South Africa.

Could you give us a little bit of background on Greenpeace Africa?

Greenpeace Africa has been around since the end of 2008, so we're still pretty new. Internationally, Greenpeace has been in existence for forty years. We have offices in 48 countries around the world. We also have a coordinating body, Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam. Greenpeace Africa is present in South Africa, where we campaign on climate change and energy issues in particular. Greenpeace is entirely member-based, so one of our core values is independence. We don't accept any money from corporations or governments; and the reason independence is so important to us is that we have no permanent enemies and no permanent allies. We need to have the freedom to campaign because as an organisation we're driven by our campaigns. Although our main base is in South Africa, Greenpeace Africa has over 10,000 supporters around the continent, who support us because they identify with the campaigns that we run. What Greenpeace is probably most well-known for are our high-profile non-violent direct actions.. But it's certainly not all we do; we also do a lot of advocacy and lobbying, and a great deal of scientific research. One of our most recent reports is called the "Advanced Energy [R]evolution", which is basically a blueprint for shifting South Africa away from coal and nuclear energy and towards renewable energy, and that's more or less the foundation for our campaign in South Africa. The audience for that campaign would be governments, unions and decision makers, but also other NGOS and the renewable energy industry. It's basically an analysis of what is technically feasible and what is necessary to create the kind of fundamental change we're talking about.

So would you say you're sounding the alarm at the same time as you're talking about what the alternatives are?

Yes, we have three pillars in our campaign. Basically, we don't believe in continuing to invest in coal, so we want a just transition and phase-out from coal. We're anti-nuclear and we believe there shouldn't be any nuclear at all, and finally, we're pro-renewables and a safe, secure energy future, so that's our solutions orientation. We campaign for an Energy [R]evolution, which is basically a fundamental change in the way that energy is used, transported and distributed, shifting away from coal and nuclear energy, and towards renewable energy and energy efficiency.

What is Greenpeace's stake in climate change? And what is climate change and why does it matter?

Climate change is one of Greenpeace's big campaigns because, if we get to a stage where we reach catastrophic climate change—which is basically where temperature increase globally reaches 2 degrees Celsius - then we're going to be in a situation where it's no longer in our control to stop it. So, all the other campaigns that we're running are completely linked to climate change. We're trying to stop a whole lot of things, like deforestation and over fishing. But all of those ecosystems are dependent on a climate system that works. The reason climate change is so important to Greenpeace Africa in particular is because it's the poorest and the most vulnerable people in the world who are going to be most negatively affected by climate change. So, it's the people on the African continent who are going to be facing the worst impacts. When we talk about climate change here, it's urgent.

In terms of what climate change is, it's an accumulation of various greenhouse gases in the earth's atmosphere, where they trap heat, resulting in climate change, or much more extreme weather patterns around the world over longer periods. When we talk about emissions, there are a number of greenhouse gases that contribute (including methane and nitrous oxide) but by far the biggest contributor is carbon dioxide. That is also why we focus on coal, because carbon dioxide is one of the worst greenhouse gases. It is released from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas in power plants, cars and factories – as well as through deforestation. More than 90% of South Africa's electricity comes from coal at the moment, and we're the 12th highest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, so whereas the rest of the African continent does not contribute to climate change on any significant level, South Africa is different. That puts this country in a special position; yes we're a developing country, but we're actually a big emerging economy that contributes a huge amount to climate change and to global emissions.

What is Greenpeace Africa doing in preparation for COP17?

One of the things we're planning on doing is expanding on the solar work we've done before, which is solutions oriented. Last year we had a project in Jericho, a village just outside of Johannesburg, where we installed solar panels on a community hall for people to view matches during the World Cup. And we're building on that this year, when we're going to be training some youth in the KZN area. Last year was a very good learning experience for Greenpeace, working in a community with people who have limited access to electricity, and it was very interesting to see the response in terms of people's interests in renewable energy and how quickly people can learn. We trained people from the community for two weeks, and then they installed the solar panels on the roof of the hall themselves. To build on that further, we'll be training people and having a solar cinema in Durban at the end of the year. We're going to have a solar installation, where the people who've been trained will install the solar panels. We're also planning a climate impacts documentary that will be launched at COP17, looking at the impact of climate change in South Africa, Mali and Kenya. We've also got a range of other mobilisation activities focused on pushing for more ambition when it comes to renewable energy in this country. Ultimately, we're working on different levels. We're lobbying for change from the government, we're certainly pushing Eskom (the South African electricity public utility) to change because they have the monopoly on electricity here, and we're also trying to mobilise the people of South Africa more broadly.

As you mentioned, it's the poorest and most vulnerable that are hardest hit by climate change, and sometimes it's easy to see what seems like a dichotomy between those who are suffering the effects, and the big polluters. But when you say 90% of electricity here is generated by coal, people are using that because it's cheap, and it's available. When Greenpeace does its campaigning, how are you talking to people about their needs versus the impact that they have by using things like coal power, especially when those who are most vulnerable are, in their experience, benefiting in some way from these processes that are harmful?

It's a big challenge in a country like South Africa to talk to people about climate change in particular, but even to talk to them about coal. The solutions that Greenpeace talks about centre around the issue of decentralised energy, which means we're talking about renewable energy. You're looking at things like smart grids that are able to integrate renewable energy better, but are also able to provide electricity to specific areas. At the moment in South Africa, we have a centralised grid and system; if you're not connected to the grid, you don't get electricity, whereas in a decentralised system it would be possible, using renewable energy, to have a wind or solar farm near a community which could supply them with electricity.

Revamping an entire grid sounds like a large infrastructural project. How does that match up with the urgency of climate justice?

Well, the South African grid does need an upgrade anyway, and we're planning more detailed research into how exactly a smart grid would work in South Africa. But also, the South African government is talking about increasing renewable energy, and if you want to integrate renewable energy into the grid it will require a more flexible system anyway. We're just talking about a more ambitious system. And when you compare what the government is saying in terms of renewable energy with what Greenpeace is saying, the government is developing the right kind of thinking in terms of renewable energy. The government see it as something they need to invest in for the future, but there is a distinct lack of ambition and urgency. They're talking about it, but the levels that they want to increase renewable energy by are not high enough. And then their ambition in terms of implementation is also too small. We had the "Integrated Resource Plan", a report which came out earlier this year, which noted that less than one percent of our electricity comes from renewables at the moment, even though we have some of the best renewable energy resources in the world. According to our Advanced Energy Revolution report, by 2030 it's technically feasible for 50% of South Africa's electricity to come from renewables.

What the South African government is proposing is that by 2030, 23% of our electricity comes from renewable energy. So it's a substantial increase, but it's not big enough. It's not big enough to stop climate change, and it's not big enough to create the kind of energy system that will be sustainable for this country. But that takes us back to energy access. One of the big things for Rio+20 is probably going to be increasing energy access, and the best way to do that in South Africa is through renewable energy actually, despite the fact that this country is building two of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world at the moment, Medupi and Kusile. They're going to be in the top five worldwide.

How do we square that with the South African government's purported commitment to progress on renewables?

Well, it's a question. The reason for the investment in coal was that in 2008 South Africa started having rolling blackouts. That happened because supply wasn't meeting demand because the South African government and Eskom hadn't been investing in new infrastructure, so they basically went into crisis mode. That was when the big investments in Medupi started, and the plans for Kusile as well. No other alternatives were looked at, but it takes at least 8 years to build a coal-fired power station. South Africa is also planning six new nuclear power stations, which take more than a decade each to build, whereas with renewable energy you can get a wind farm up and running in two to three years.

What's going on there?

The belief that renewable energy works doesn't really exist. The South African government sees renewable energy as a nice add-on. There is the idea of 'baseload power' coming from coal or nuclear energy, which is the idea that you need one power source that can provide everything or almost everything. That's what we have in South Africa, with coal supplying more than 90% of the country's electricity. Now, the South African government is recognising that they need to shift away from coal, despite building two of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world, and they're saying renewables can't supply that baseload, but nuclear can, which is why they're planning six new nuclear power stations.

What's Greenpeace's stance on this? No nuclear energy under any circumstances?

We have one nuclear power station here. Greenpeace's position is that when that reaches the end of its lifespan, it should be closed down and that should be the end of nuclear power. One reason for that is that nuclear is environmentally and socially very very dangerous, but that's not the only reason. It's also incredibly expensive. South Africa has been struggling to get the money for the coal-fired power stations, Medupi and Kusile. They had to get a World Bank loan for Medupi, and they've been searching for funds for Kusile. Nuclear energy is ten times as expensive as coal. That means that the costs of building nuclear energy will be passed on to ordinary South Africans. It's also a time issue. People are presenting nuclear power as a solution to climate change because it emits less carbon than coal, but it's going to take us more than a decade to build just one nuclear power station. That's not a solution to climate change. Further, it's not no carbon. If you look at the nuclear process from mining uranium to actually producing electricity, it is lower carbon than coal, but it's not zero carbon. So it's misrepresented as a solution to climate change.

From the South African government's planning for more nuclear and coal energy sources, it seems like their commitment to renewables may be nominal at best. Do you think the government is evolving on these issues, especially as organisations like yours raise them more? Is this part of what Greenpeace is preparing to deal with in the lead-up to the COP?

In the international negotiations, the South African government has been progressive. In Copenhagen, the South African government made a commitment to reduce emissions below "business as usual", by 34% by 2020 and 42% by 2025, which is a really good commitment for a developing country to make. The South African government is also playing a sort of brokering role in the negotiations. They're not a European country or a big developed country, and they're not a small developing country, so they can get China talking to other countries, for instance. They're good as brokers. But, domestically we're not seeing a commitment to reducing emissions. So they need to take responsibility for what's going on domestically.

What's the disconnect?

It's the belief that you need coal. And it gets even more technical because they've agreed to this reduction from "business as usual", but they haven't defined what "business as usual" is. So they're still in the process of figuring out what that baseline would be, and then saying, "Well, ok, these are the things we're going to be doing to reduce emissions." So in theory, Kusile and Medupi are part of their baseline, which is disingenuous. They're essentially saying, "Look, we're a developing country and we need space to develop, and we need coal for now but we'll invest in renewables later."

Do you feel like they're actually committed to making that transition?

I think they're seeing it as important, but again, the ambition and the urgency isn't there at the level that it needs to be.

Look out for the final installation of our conversation with Melita Steele in next week's e-CIVICUS, where she'll discuss COP17, how it works, what it actually means and what change we might realise through it for climate justice.


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