South Africa Workshop: Day 7

by Rachel Lee

Saturday 22nd June

By around 9.00am everyone was to be found making the most of their final sumptuous breakfast at the Vineyard Hotel; sadly the weather wasn’t up to sitting out on the terrace, but that just makes access to the infinite buffet easier. The visit had illustrated just how much needed to be done outside of our personal ‘geographical’ mind-sets.  We had seen the enormous potential for solar and wind in South Africa and discussed the vast opportunities for hydro further north in the continent. But issues of climate change remain distant for most of the population and we had found even those with knowledge still wedded to using the vast coal reserves in South Africa, with two enormous new coal plants under construction.  There was agreement that writing up some of the thoughts we and our University of Cape Town peers had generated during the week could do no harm.

Most of the team were departing in the late afternoon and set about planning how they could make the most of the gym and other hotel facilities after checkout.  Julia and I had other plans and headed off to collect a hire car from the airport with James and Ewan who had an earlier flight via Johannesburg.  So, as most of the group headed for their planes that evening,  Julia and I headed for our own African plain…

However, it wasn’t all just leisure as we found our own unique African Li-ion at Inverdoorn Reserve and investigated another African-born innovation – the Sodium-nickel chloride battery, invented back in 1985 by the Zeolite Battery Research Africa Project (ZEBRA).

But there are only so many energy-storage related puns, so I’ll finish with some further thoughts from the week.

As Julia and I continued our travels we found South Africa to be a beautiful country, but one that still has some way to go to recover from its turbulent past.  There are many issues of inequality and deprivation that need addressing; the traditional approach to tackling this through accelerating economic growth perhaps inevitably pushes climate change down the agenda.

The South African Government has commissioned climate change reports[1], and these acknowledge the risk that climate change presents.  For South Africa, the risk of extended droughts and more intense storms and floods and the effect of increasing evaporation rates are noted as key concerns. Despite this, our safari guide, when asked whether they thought climate change might be contributing to the 4-year drought, didn’t seem to have considered it at all.

It seems that there is a need to change the perspective on renewable energy and other climate change-mitigating measures. Our Eskom representative during the week acknowledged that renewables were now cheaper than fossil fuels and that was why independent power producers in the state were building such plants.  The African continent has much to offer in natural resources to enable the transition to a near-zero carbon economy; whether it’s solar and wind resources or minerals and rare-earth metals for batteries. There is a huge opportunity to embrace this transition, leap-frog already industrialised nations and deliver improvements in living conditions and wellbeing to its population.   Perhaps our most challenging task is to enable developing countries to see a different path to the future than that taken by ourselves; one that can deliver better living standards and happiness across the population without further damage to the ecosystem we must all live within?

[1] https://www.environment.gov.za/otherdocuments/reports/southafricas_secondnational_climatechange

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