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South Africa Under Fire For 'Dirty Energy'

People walk with a coffin as they protest against the usage of coal during a climate change conference at the city of Durban, South Africa, December 1, 2011.

People walk with a coffin as they protest against the usage of coal during a climate change conference at the city of Durban, South Africa, December 1, 2011.

As host of the current United Nations Climate Conference, South Africa is under the spotlight and under fire for what many are calling a "dirty energy" policy. More than 90 percent of South African electricity is produced from coal - believed to be the worst contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change. Activists are calling for the government to develop alternative and clean supplies of energy.

South Africa is among the top five coal producing and exporting countries in the world. And, with voracious energy needs, South Africa relies almost exclusively on coal to power its homes, businesses and economy.

And, the government here has plans to grow its coal dependency in the short -term by opening another two new coal-powered energy stations.

This has environmentalists worried that there is no view to evolving a clean energy policy. And, as host of the U.N. Climate Conference in the Indian Ocean city, Durban, South Africa is attracting scrutiny like never before.

There have protests in Durban against all kinds of so called anti-green policies. South Africa is being lumped in with some of the world’s largest carbon polluters, like the United States, Russia and China.

Professor Patrick Bond, a leading academic in Durban and a clean energy activist, says he had hoped that democratic South Africa would reverse its dependence on what he calls dirty energy, but that this has not happened.

“Like the apartheid system, the use of coal, like black labor, was terribly destructive by the big companies that set up apartheid to serve their profitability interests," said Bond. "So, we have never taken into consideration the environmental costs. It’s a long legacy that we thought post-apartheid could change.”

He says South Africa has failed to underwrite job-creating renewable energy systems since the first democratic elections in 1994.

“Of course we have got such excellent solar capacity especially on the western side and there is already a small solar chimney being constructed, and of course solar hot waters heaters should be put onto every house,” added Bond.

South Africa government officials have been on the defensive in Durban, saying keeping coal as the primary source of the power is necessary, in the short term, to meet development needs here in the country with 25 percent unemployment.

Minister of Economic Development Ebrahim Patel told conference participants in Durban his country shares the challenge to evolve in an energy thirsty planet.

“We recognize, as a country, we followed a path of coal-based industrialization in the 20th century," said Patel. "For us the challenge is how to change from that trajectory and create more jobs in the process.”

Environment Minister Edna Molewa says the government does have a plan in place to increase use of renewable energy, but that it will take time.

“The objective is to ensure that we move into the renewables, not abandoning coal completely," said Molewa. "Because we need space to develop those renewables until we have adequate infrastructure that is inexpensive for our people within the area of renewables. At the same time, acknowledging that there are industries like mining that still need some level of usage of coal."

She says the two new coal-powered electricity stations that have come under fire will be far more efficient than the majority in operation, many of which were built more than 50 years ago.

The government here owns the power company ESKOM, one of the world’s top 10 electricity generators, and which produces about 95 percent of South Africa’s electrical power. At its recent shareholders’ meeting, ESKOM management said the authority was moving as fast as it could to diversify South Africa’s energy mix to be less dependent on coal.