Environmentalists opposed Medupi from beginning to end
Mike Muller has a few things wrong about a purported focus on sulphur dioxode
While the bushveld was being bulldozed to clear the land for Medupi in 2007 Eskom’s then CEO, Jacob Maroga, told us the Waterberg region was not sufficiently polluted to warrant installing sulphur scrubbers. The comment echoed the notorious internal memo circulated by World Bank official Lawrence Summers, in which he argued that poor countries were underpolluted and “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable”.
This refrain was taken up by Mike Muller in his recent article (“How environmentalists got their aim wrong”, August 24). It is apparently now the fault of “the environmentalists” that Medupi is caught in the web of contradictions that follow from choosing to build more coal-fired power stations.
Eskom and the National Treasury went to the World Bank when the Wall Street credit ratings agencies first threatened to downgrade Eskom’s rating in March 2008. The agencies wanted a steep rise in tariffs to pay for the new build. We, the said environmentalists, first heard of it in August that year when the World Bank presented itself as a white knight to the rescue. It said the loan would bring financial stability to Eskom, support future economic growth, contribute to poverty alleviation and help SA onto a “low carbon path”.
We thought it would do none of those things and opposed the loan as well as the project itself. We did not agree, as Muller implies, that the climate argument was “easily dealt with”. Medupi was calculated to emit 30-million tonnes of CO2 a year, and the climate does not distinguish between a slightly more efficient tonne and an inefficient one. And we did not then “focus instead on SO2”.
We opposed the project from beginning to end on all its environmental effects, on the exacerbation of poverty as tariffs were set to escalate, on the certain prospect of budget and time overruns, on the risks to the economy of large dollar loans and the accompanying bet on never-ending demand growth. There was no fallback position, nor did we support any compromise. We wanted to stop it.
The World Bank had long since positioned itself as a key player in climate finance, which it used to promote promarket responses — to save the market, not the climate. It included the scrubbers to give itself some green cover, but also to punt the “clean coal” agenda globally. Then, as now, that agenda was about justifying new coal projects.
At the time we pointed out that the scrubbers consume a lot of water and that Lephalale is dry. We also expected that when it came to it Eskom would try to wriggle out of installing them. That’s how clean coal works: justify the project first and then renege on the clean bit later.
As the construction dragged on Eskom said there was enough water from the local Mokolo catchment to feed three scrubbers. We said they would do better not to build the next three units than to build a water pipeline. We agree with Muller that there are better things to do with clean water. Except that the water is hardly clean.
If you pronounce it right, the acronym for the Mokolo-Crocodile Water Augmentation Project tells you what will come down the pipeline at great cost: M-Cwap from Gauteng’s failing sewerage works. We also asked why they do not consider installing “dry” scrubbers, which consume less water. There has not been a real answer to that.
Nevertheless, Muller has a point. But that’s the thing about coal. To fix one problem, you invariably create another. Waterberg coal is high in sulphur and, contra Muller, the effects are not trivial. Medupi is just a couple of kilometres away from Matimba, the original Waterberg power station built in the 1980s. Together they emit nearly 2,000 tonnes of SO2 every day. And it is supplemented by ground level emissions from spontaneous combustion at the huge Grootegeluk mine, which feeds coal to both. People in Marapong, the township built at Matimba’s base, say down drafting is not uncommon and the full force of the plant’s emissions then causes severe respiratory illnesses.
Otherwise, the pollution plume typically stretches south or southwest over Gaborone and Thabazimbi and on to the rest of North West. Modelling that takes account of the dispersal patterns and distribution of people attributes 626 premature deaths a year to these two plants and a whole lot more illness. There is also heavy acid deposition across the bushveld and the acidification of soil is in effect irreversible.
It is not surprising that Muller wants geoengineering. It is the ultimate hubris of an engineer. The idea of spraying the upper atmosphere with sulphur aerosols is attributed to Edward Teller, former chief of the US Livermore nuclear laboratories — researching how to build better bombs — and a model for the movie character Dr Strangelove. He did not advocate it “to provide vital breathing space while economies and societies are restructured”, but as an alternative to reducing greenhouse gases.
The world’s “leaders” have spent the last three decades avoiding action on climate. They have spent trillions bailing out the banks, but a few paltry billions on the existential threat posed by the climate crisis. They will talk transformation and walk with Strangelove.
The problem, as with coal, is that the fix creates more problems. The acidification of land and sea is worsened and the wholesale extinction of species is put aside. Putting sulphur in the air also affects who gets rain and who doesn’t. That sulphur aerosols “mask” global heating is exactly the right metaphor. CO2 lasts for centuries in the atmosphere, methane lasts for a decade or so before breaking down to CO2 and hydrogen, SO2 lasts for about a week. The underlying temperature is driven up by the major greenhouse gases and any break in a sulphur spraying programme would result in very rapid heating to that level. Adaptation is then virtually impossible.
The short-term warming effect of methane is indeed a critical issue and the gas pipelines certainly do leak, as Muller notes. Nonconventional gas leaks — even more than what is called natural gas. That includes liquefied natural gas (LNG), proposed for use by Karpowerships, and fracking, as Muller says we should do in the Karoo.
Muller says we are landed with Karpowerships because “the environmental lobbies” stopped fracking. What tosh. We are fighting Karpowerships as well as fracking — regrettably, the frack fight is not over — along with the government’s entire gas expansion agenda. Apart from leaking methane, fracking consumes vast quantities of water and the Karoo is dry. Perhaps Muller can advise us about wasting good money and clean water on that.
• Hallowes is a researcher for groundWork, which organised the campaign against the World Bank loan for Medupi with Earthlife Africa and the Centre for Civil Society.
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