Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy New Year!

The Festive Season is a time to relax and be refreshed. This year, much of my time was spent reading two books I had been given.

The first was the autobiography of my old friend, Kader Asmal. We first met when he was Minister of Water Affairs. When we moved to Cape Town, he was a neighbour, living just across the road. Over the years we became friends and political sparring partners. He would tease me about my ineffectual white liberalism, that had flapped its hands at the horrors of apartheid. I would tease him about the disaster called communism, and how it always corrupted its leaders.

So reading his autobiography was a delight. I had not realized his role in setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, how the early films of the Nuremberg trials had coloured his life and driven him to a passion for human rights. I finally understood why he had been so interested when I shared with him my view of the greatest disaster of the 20th century – that 160 million people had been slain by the leaders of the nations to which the dead had sworn allegiance, a United Nations statistic. We debated at some length why the 21st century would be any different. My view was that modern communications made such crimes impossible to conceal, and could drive revolutions against oppressors, as the Arab Spring had demonstrated. Kader accused me of being the perpetual optimist.

It took the second book, The Fear – The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, by Peter Godwin, to show me that my optimism was misplaced. Godwin documents what he calls the politicide, the killing of thousands to instil the fear that keeps Mugabe in power. It is not merely Operation Gukurahundi, the slaughtering of some 20 000 Ndebele who had the temerity to support Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU party. That happened nearly thirty years ago, ‘an unfortunate episode in history’. It is the ongoing use of the organs of the state to smash the opposition – literally.

Godwin writes of his curiosity, when visiting Zimbabwe soon after the 2008 elections which led to the sham power-sharing of the MDC in government, that he saw so many wheelbarrows with people riding in them – until he realized these were the injured, with shattered bones, discharged from the ZANU torture centres and being trundled to hospital.

Godwin reports on his visits to the hospitals. One patient’s story suffices. Questioned about his political affiliation, he admitted he had been the election director for the MDC in Harare. He was whipped; kicked in the face; stripped naked; while someone stood on his neck, beaten with branches until there was no skin on his back; and finally a truck was driven back and forth across his legs. Miraculously, he survived.

Schools were turned into torture centres; homes were torched and women and children incinerated. One woman was gang raped by seven youths, all of whom she recognized as children of her village. Godwin writes of a child trembling at the sight of a twin-cab pickup truck – it was in such a truck that the child last saw his mother, blindfolded and being tortured. In the city, the child was thrown from the truck; the mother’s charred body later discovered in the bush some 50km away. The final tortures described to Godwin are so obscene that the Marquis de Sade himself would have been appalled at their savagery.

But there are also stories of heroism in the face of such savagery. Morgan Tsvangirai was repeatedly arrested and tortured – and he is the leader of the MDC. He fled, then returned for another dose. Godwin describes the problems Tsvangirai faced on agreeing to join a multi-party government, when his party had clearly won the elections, but Mugabe refused to have the results released. One can only admire a leader who is prepared to stay in the face of the kind of threats he faces.

Another hero is Roy Bennett. Appointed a minister in the new government, he was warned that he would be seized as he appeared to be sworn in. He was duly arrested and thrown into a jail of medieval awfulness. But he is a Zimbabwean through and through – when he speaks Shona on the telephone, locals cannot tell that he is a white man. While in jail, the famous spirit medium ambuya Makopa sent him protective muti, and when he was finally released, she who normally never leaves her home was there to greet him.

But the nightmares of the torture of one human by another remain. Kader Asmal should have left an enduring legacy of absolute respect for human rights. Instead, his heirs in government support the megalomaniac to our north. The lessons of the 20th century are passing them by.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How I coped with COP17

I was asked to represent the World Federation of Engineering Organizations at COP17. I even got a formal letter acknowledging my nomination, which would gain me admission to the holy of holies. Wow! I thought.

The reality was somewhat different. To say that the thing is barely organized chaos would be to flatter it. Yes, there is a formal COP process, and you can get caught up in a long round of meetings where such critical issues as "Can Cyprus be admitted to Annex 1 in terms of Section 19.3(a) i?" get discussed. (It was!)

But much of the juicier stuff was closed to us mere observers. There was one such meeting, an "Informal consultation on the issue of response measures" which was nominally open to observers, but when I entered the tiny, packed room, an officious, haggle-toothed witch chased me out with her broomstick. The meeting was Closed - there was a misprint in the programme.

The formal process involved perhaps 1500 of the delegates. What about the other 13 500? Well, there were official side events and unofficial side events, at all of which various groups promoted their views. One of the most valuable was an international business grouping, which reported each day on progress towards achieving a Text.

The Text is the Holy Grail, the statement made at the end of the COP. All the arm-wrestling between the Party delegates was aimed at a satisfactory Text. So the daily summary was a key event. The Press and many observers followed it faithfully. But it was hosted by business, so it took place 2km from the Conference Centre. COP is not business-friendly!

I attended quite a few of the side events. Generally, it was the converted talking to the faithful. At one, the Hadley Centre presented results showing huge increases in storm events worldwide. I enquired whether the results had appeared in the published literature, or, if not, whether the data from which the results were derived were available for independent scrutiny. My question was not answered publicly - instead, I had to approach one of the speakers to find out that the results had not been published and that the data were adapted from a publicly available data set, the adaptations to which would be made available once the paper was published. Yeah!

Another was an All-African event. There was much beating of chests over the damage being done by climate change - yet the damage was strangely familiar. So at the end I enquired whether the problem was not either lack of infrastructure or failure to maintain existing infrastructure, both of which could be fixed by engineering. It might be better to do the engineering than to hang around and wait for climate change handouts, which I personally doubted would be available any day soon. Some quarters showed much appreciation for my comments!

A really good event was hosted by the World Coal Association. Being business, it took place late in the evening and in the smallest of the side-event halls. It gave a reality that the Parties should have been hearing. The Parties were meeting to discuss ways of reducing carbon emissions. World Coal pointed out the hypocrisy of it all. During the last decade, the Parties had increased their coal consumption by more than 50%. Moreover, they were haggling about renewing the Kyoto Protocol, as if the Protocol could save the world. Yet World Coal claimed that merely decommissioning old coal-fired power stations or upgrading them to modern standards would reduce emissions by about 6%. Even if the US had signed the Protocol, and everyone had met their commitments, Kyoto would only have saved about 5% of the emissions.

The front row of this meeting was packed with the yellow tee-shirts of the Sierra Club. In discussion time, I said the dichotomy revealed by the World Coal Association deserved to be heard by a wider audience. Well done, the Sierra Club, for being present - but where were Greenpeace and Oxfam and WWF? They needed to hear this message. Yet they were burying their heads in the sands, just like the Parties, because this was a message they did not want to hear.

Afterwards I was mobbed by the Sierra Club. Could they quote me? Who was I, exactly? It transpired that the Club had held an Event on the beachfront, where they had all buried their heads in the sands in protest against the inaction of the Parties. Had I subconsciously picked up their message? Would I like to join the Club? Praise indeed!

In the end I had to decide that I could no longer be part of this farce. The world could not much longer afford to sustain so much hot air. Carbon is part of life - COPs are the way of death. I left with a huge feeling of relief, well before the hypocrisy could be reduced to a Text.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The one-handed economist

An economist has said that any new disaster could spell the end of the nuclear industry.

I am not certain why economists insist on stepping outside their comfort zone to pontificate. "Give me two handed economists - that way their chances of being wrong become very small" said one president who had suffered from their ill advice.

The Japanese disaster reminds us a) that no system can be made absolutely perfect b) that when a nuclear disaster does occur, the consequences can be considerable and c) compared to the previous disaster at Chernobyl, the actual consequences were several orders of magnitude less.

Thus we engineers are getting better and better at a) reducing the risks of an accident occurring in the first instance and b) reducing the impact of an accident if it does occur. In the light of Fukushima, nations around the world have reviewed their nuclear safety, and found that comparatively minor improvements (like moving a generator out of the way of any flood!) are all that is necessary to reduce the risks to very low levels.

Over 6% of the world's primary energy comes from nuclear energy. Last year, the new nuclear energy that came on stream was larger than the much heralded renewable energy, in terms of energy actually delivered.

6% may not sound like very much, but it is six times larger than all the renewable energy so far installed. Those forests of windmills, acres of photocells and sun-capturing mirrors don't actually yield very much power. And nuclear power is there to help out when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining. It isn't going to go away any time soon!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Job creation

There is a remarkable myth propagated by the green lobby, that renewable energy will create jobs. The myth has almost more believers than any other religion.

Why is this a myth? It is because the number of jobs created by any new venture is not related to the spend on construction - those are short term jobs. Yes, a few people work while the project is being built, but this is part of the social cost, the sunk capital. If the project then doesn't produce, then NO jobs are created.

This is not to say that construction work is not job-creating. As an engineer, I would never say that. But it is the productive facilities or supportive infrastructure that we create which ultimately gives new jobs, not the actual work that goes into the construction.

Instead, the number of jobs you create is related to the number of customers you create once the project is up and running. You can see this quite easily if you think of an energy project which sells no energy once it is producing. Rather, jobs are destroyed, because you have wasted potential job creating wealth on a useless project.

The same argument applies to what you might call the marginal job creation. Consider two projects, one producing the goods at cost X and the other the same goods at cost Y, where X>Y. Then there will be more customers for Y than for X, and therefore the second project will create more jobs than the first.

This applies DIRECTLY to renewable energy. It costs more than coal-fired energy (yes, even when you include external costs). If you doubt that it costs more, you have only to read the documentation underlying IRP2010. So renewable energy actually creates less jobs than coal. The myth does not deserve the lip-service it is paid.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Are you short of gas?

The State is having difficulty persuading the petroleum industry to supply sufficient LP Gas. Minister Peters would like to convert 1.5 million households to this fuel by 2016.It would make a great difference. At present, unsafe fuels cause thousands of 'shack fires' annually. tens of thousands of homes are destroyed and many lives lost.
Part of the problem is the R8.15/kg regulated price at the refinery gate. This price is too low, and the industry cannot justify expansion/ This cannot be the whole story, because the retail price in Gauteng is R21.60/kg. Where does this huge markup come from? A few years ago I studied LP Gas distribution internationally. In China, gas left the refinery at (then) $370/t and reached the streets at under $400. In Morocco, where Government has also actively encouraged LP Gas use for the poor with great success, a refinery gate price of $350/t translated into a street price of just over $400, but there was a small subsidy of about $20/t.
So there are two problems we face. The first is the ongoing desire to regulate the price of petroleum products. Government has been speaking about deregulation for years, and doing nothing. The result is that the industry has underinvested in refinery capacity, and we are having to import more and more of all fuels every year, which is inherently more expensive than producing it from imported crude oil.
The second is the distribution model for LP Gas. There is layer upon layer of handlers, each of whom takes a cut. Much of this is spuriously justified by safety concerns. The LP Gas Safety Association has done an excellent job of promoting safety, but each layer of handlers now justifies its existence (and markup) on the grounds that safety is critical. It isn't. The local safety record is no better or worse than international records.
Moreover, Government unwittingly supports the distribution model by requiring licences all along the way. You even require a licence to store a few cylinders of gas in a spaza - which you can't get because the spaza doesn't sit on an identifiable erf.
A deregulated market would see refinery gate prices rise, distribution costs fall dramatically, hundreds of jobs created in an efficient distribution chain and a consumer who was grateful to a sensible Government for getting the hell out of the way.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why the rush?

Our Environment Minister approves of renewable energy featuring strongly in the future energy mix of the country. Indeed, IRP 2010 was largely driven by some strange ideas about a low carbon future.

The trouble is that renewable energy is a relatively unproven technology, and therefore risky. The Danes are having to sell half their wind energy at a considerable loss; the Texans are griping because power costs have soared as conventional stations have been forced into inefficient start/stop operation to accommodate surges; the Chinese are having to switch off wind power to keep their power plants running, because the power plants also send hot water to homes and factories for warmth.

What is the Environment Minister doing in areas about which she knows next to nothing? The simple fact is that renewables are expensive. IRP2010 showed this.

For instance, nuclear capital costs are about R27000/kWh installed, and wind about R14500. However, the nuclear plant has a life of 60 years and yields about 85% of its installed capacity every year. The wind installation has a life of about 20 years and yields less than 30% of its capacity. That means that the capital cost is about 6c/kWh for nuclear and 28c/kWh for wind. Operating costs are around 15c/kWh for nuclear and 9c/kWh for wind.

There is no contest - if you want affordable low carbon, you should be into nuclear power.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The end of the affair

Ending relationships is always painful. We try to avoid the pain by delaying as long as possible. All that happens is that things get worse, until parting becomes inevitable.

In 1953 I opened my first bank account with what was then called Barclays Bank. Fifty-eight tumultuous years and several name changes later, the bank abandoned me, so I am now leaving it. It will be painful, it will take time and cost, but when you receive the message that your bank couldn’t give a damn, then it is time to move on.

Not that the relationship has been smooth over all these years. There was the memorable moment when I nearly found myself inside a jail in Iran. The brand-new $100 bills the bank had given me were counterfeit, which was instantly spotted by the Iranian money-changer. On my return to South Africa, I paid the ‘surplus’ dollars back into my account – and then warned the bank they were fakes. I am still waiting for an apology.

Or there was the time when I was a struggling young professional. Something I came across suggested a very profitable investment – but I had no cash. So I asked for an overdraft. I had an interview with my bank manager, who told me that, as I was already mortgaged to the hilt, the bank could not assist me. Over the next three weeks, I watched helplessly as my expectations came true. Then I went into the bank on other business, and the manager came out of his office to thank me for a really wonderful tip.

Or the moment when my credit card was frozen as I landed in France. Because I was heading for a remote area, there was little I could do about it for nearly a week. Seven days of bread and water followed, before I found that the freeze was because I had not taken the precaution of advising the bank that I would be overseas. It mattered not that I had paid for flights, cars, hotels and travel insurance via the card. The first transaction in a foreign land had blocked the card “for my protection”.

Could it get worse? Try three weeks of bread-and-water. In Naples my pocket was picked. The credit card went. I had advised the bank of my intended absence, so there was a possibility that it could be used. However, one phone call, and the card was blocked and a replacement promised. Yes, it should get to me within three days – “We care about our platinum card holders!”

When it didn’t arrive, a phone call showed that the process of issuing the card was stalled because the bank hadn’t received confirmation that I was a South African resident and that I intended to return (as they hadn’t asked for confirmation, it wasn’t surprising). The delay meant I had to change the delivery address from Naples to Rome – I could expect the card in three days.

More calls from Rome, and several promises that I would be contacted, all of which were broken. With three days to go, I demanded to speak to a supervisor. He was all unction; really apologetic that my holiday was being ruined; and promised faithfully to have the new card couriered that night so that it would reach me before I left Rome.

I did the sensible thing, and requested the document tracking number so I could contact the courier company. I was given a very wrong number. It became clear that it wouldn’t reach me in time – so I requested that the courier company be asked to change the delivery address. “No problem!”

Finally it was delivered to Rome. By then I was in Florence, but I had left a trail, and Rome called up to report receipt. €70 of courier fees and two days later, a new card was finally mine.

My troubles were not over. The card needed activation. The letter of transmission assured me I had only to call the bank. I called, and was told it was impossible – I had to go through a verification process.

The process required a PIN, but I couldn’t receive a PIN, because the PIN was being SMSed to my SA cell phone. Could they please send it to me by email – the same email used to send me my monthly statements? Not unless I got a PIN. Catch-22 is alive and well. I returned to SA with an unused card.

Telephone calls to get the new card had cost about R1200. Throw in the courier fees, and about R2000 was wasted on what should have been the simplest exercise. A holiday had been seriously affected. The bank has been silent. It clearly couldn’t care less.

I’ve got the message. After fifty-eight years I’m off to pastures new. I don’t know they will be any better – but they couldn’t be much worse.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How Government gets nationalisation wrong!

Susan Shabangu, our Minster of Mineral Resources, has said that there are no signs of disinvestment as a result of the talk of nationalising mines. The Minister needs to learn that there is a big difference between investment and disinvestment.

Investment means money flows in. That demonstrably isn't happening, because there are no new mines opening in spite of the minerals boom. Talk of nationalisation is only one reason for this - lack of energy is another, lack of infrastructure a third. There is the billions invested in Richards Bay Coal Terminal to get the capacity up to 90 million tonnes a year, and the railways struggle to deliver 60 million. At today's prices, that is a loss of foreign exchange of around R3 billion annually. The loss of a return on investment is perhaps another billion.

Disinvestment means money flows out - and the reason why money isn't flowing out is because no-one wants to buy the assets because of the threat of nationalisation. So she is right for all the wrong reasons!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paying for free housing

Minister Tokyo Sexwale has announced that the scheme to provide free housing for the poor will soon come to an end.

We were all poor once - and no-one offered us free housing once we had left home. Another answer to provision for the poor must be found.

Perhaps the German solution merits deeper investigation. From the 1870's onwards, when the German peasants wanted to move to the city, they could sell their 'tribal right' to land. This gave them cash to house themselves in the city. Those who did not wish to move could buy land with a state-funded mortgage. Germany never had shacks.

We need to allow people to sell their tribal rights to land - and use some of the money generated to pay the chiefs for their losses. That way some of the tribal land which is exceedingly arable can be brought under modern farming and make a contribution to our well-being, while those wishing to move to the cities would have the funds to do so.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ecoterrorism is rife

In the runup to COP17, the horror stories are flowing thick and fast. The latest to cross my path came from a recent capacity-building workshop on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD+) . "Deforestation and forest degradation produced about 20% of total human-caused GHG emissions on a yearly basis."

There is absolutely no basis for this statement. It is typical of the horror stories dreamed up to coerce us into foolish action.

Total consumption of timber is around 1400 million cubic metres a year, most of which comes from sustainable forestry. Total consumption of fossil fuels is around 10 500 million tonnes oil equivalent. Burning oil produces far more CO2 than burning wood. So the "20%" figure is more like 1%.

You can lie for only so long before you are found out. These ecoterrorists need to learn that simple lesson.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Law of the Engineer

As an engineer, I had to learn that Murphy’s Law really is a Law, not some wishy-washy rule. For the uninitiated, the Law says that if something can go wrong, it will. Note, “it will”, not “it may”. There is an awful finality about the Law. It is inescapable.

So when we engineers design something, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that it will almost certainly fail. Its failure will be unexpected – a ‘black swan’ event – but fail it eventually will.

Fortunately we learn from our mistakes. What we design gets better and better all the time. My first car was a Morris Minor. It had a hole in the centre of the front bumper. When the starter motor failed, you took out a crank handle, put it through the hole, and turned the engine by hand until it started.

When the starter motor failed, not if. In the 1950’s the starter was expected to fail. Over the years, starters have become more and more reliable. No longer do cars come with crank handles.

This simple example is repeated over and over. I once travelled fast in a 1926 Bentley. Its chassis was positively alive, and the slightest bump would send the car off course. The Bentley had been the finest machine of its day. It won at Le Mans several years in a row. But today its road-holding would make it impossible to sell. The designers of cars have learned from their mistakes.

The result of this continual improvement is that unexpected failures become rarer and rarer. In the motor industry, there are occasional ‘recalls’ when an error appears in one of the many systems that make up the modern vehicle. They are rare, so rare that they are newsworthy.

Much of modern life benefits from the continual improvements we engineers have made. However, we can never forget that Murphy is peering over our shoulders. The latest example was Fukushima. The designers knew that if cooling was lost, it would be a disaster, so they designed backup pumps that would keep cooling water flowing. Then they recognised that the power to the backup might fail, so they installed generators to supply power if the normal power supply failed. If the generators should fail, there were batteries to keep things going until the generators could be restarted.

When one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded struck, the reactors shut down as expected. The power lines failed, so the generators kicked in. For an hour, all was well. Then Murphy arrived, in the form of a wave that was twice as high as anyone had conceived. The generators were flooded, the batteries battled on until they had run out of energy, cooling was lost and the reactors were destroyed.

Everyone has learned from this disaster. It will not happen again. Nuclear reactors will become safer. But they will never become perfect. Perfection is impossible. At best, accidents will become more and more infrequent, and lower and lower in their impact.

But whatever we do, Nature will invent more ways to defeat our best-laid plans. Murphy is ever present. That is the Law by which we engineers are ruled.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Misplaced passion

I am a passionate person. I am happy to share my passions with others, which is why I write here.

However, passion is a dangerous emotion. The passionate have to take care they they use the force of their passion constructively. It is all too easy to be destructive.

I have long felt infinitely sad for those in the animal rights movement who have expressed their passion by violence. People work with animals to try to find ways of alleviating human suffering. If you don't like them working with animals, then you should strive to find another way of curing human ills. That is the constructive use of your passion. The destructive use is to attack those who work with animals, because ultimately you are hindering their attempts to relieve human suffering.

One of my many passions is a belief in an open society, one in which we should be free to express our beliefs without fear or favour. Thus I have a hatred of propaganda. I like the definition "Propaganda is -- a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual)" [Richard Alan Nelson, A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States (1996) pp. 232-233]

When I saw the video Gasland, I soon realized it was a good example of propaganda. Finding out that it really did give a one-sided message which in many places was anything but factual took a little time. Fortunately my quest was aided by others who had reached the same conclusion. An epiphany came when I found a You-Tube of Gasland's producer, Josh Fox, admitting that he had known that the "flaming water" was a long-standing phenomenon that had nothing to do with fracking. Since then I have been passionate about revealing the propaganda for what it was.

The debate has generally been fruitful. My opponents have been courteous, knowledgeable in their own way, happy to share their concerns, and willing to consider that their concerns could be addressed. The debate has therefore come down to ways of ensuring that fixes could be achieved. Once the concerns had been reliably addressed, exploration via 'fracking' was reasonable.

I, for my part, have had to stress that no fix is perfect. Murphy's Law is alive and well. But one of the beauties of engineering is that it does get better and better - we do learn from our mistakes. So the risk of the fixes failing is likely to diminish with time. As one concern is addressed, another will be found to take its place. Ultimately the de minimis rule will kick in, and all will accept the tiny chance of failure that remains.

But there is O'Toole's rider to Murphy's Law - he said "Murphy is an optimist!" I said that the debate has generally been fruitful. There are exceptions to this rule, point blank refusal even to discuss concerns, outright rejection of the possibility of another view.

The latest example of this has been an invitation to a musician to play to a group of us. Negotiations proceeded slowly, but finally we agreed a significant fee. Then, with a week to go, came a surprising email "Since my last email I have read some of your blogs. I do not wish to be associated with you or your crew. I am vehemently against Fracking. I will also not support the pursuit of profit without regard for its humanitarian and environmental impact."

I was not previously aware that 'my crew' would be deemed to share my passions - in fact, I am certain that they share a few, and equally certain that they hold contrary views about many others. I don't mind vehemence - some of those with whom I have debated have been quite vehement, and it expresses passion well.

However, passion can blind, and surely it has in this case. One of my passions happens to be music, and that is one which I share with the musician - and with many of 'my crew'. The musician has allowed one of his passions to get in the way of another. That is as good an example of the destructiveness of passion as I know.

Shakespeare, how now your Romeo and Juliet?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Nuclear Cape Town

Twenty-seven years ago Cape Town was full of wonder at its first nuclear reactor. Since then, the station at Koeberg has performed magnificently, only missing a beat when some idiot left a piece of metal in a generator during maintenance.

However, the City of Cape Town is, mysteriously, anti-nuclear. The Cape Times municipal reporter, Babalo Ndenze, recently did an excellent job of capturing the City of Cape Town’s nuclear fears (Cape Times, August 17th). He reported that the City even believes that Koeberg has a negative effect on economic growth.

It amazes me that our City Fathers should have such short memories. Have they already forgotten that moment in 2007 when the generator failed, and Cape Town was brought to its knees? How supermarkets went dark, and millions of rands’ worth of food was spoiled? How we ate by candlelight, and laughed in gloomy cafes while we waited for our meal to be cooked on temporary stoves? How we went to bed early, bereft of our television? It was all a marvellous demonstration of the fact that not having Koeberg has a really huge negative effect.

You would think that, after 27 years of co-existence, the City would have come to value one of Cape Town's finest assets. The two reactors have churned out energy with remarkable reliability. Today their electricity is the cheapest Eskom produces, but Capetonians have to pay more, to subsidize the unfortunates in Gauteng, Mpumalanga and KZN who must still rely on coal. We are also helping to pay for the huge new stations of Medupi and Kusile, whose costs are so far above international norms that it is amazing that no-one has yet called in the Auditor General.

Instead the City is whining about how its nuclear fears have been ignored – an EIA “had not provided sufficient information on population, health and spatial planning.” Note, in someone’s judgement, there was not enough information. The topics weren’t ignored, they just didn’t get the thousands of words the City thought they needed. Instead of being constructive, and supplying any missing information about the City, our leaders copped out and whined.

Rationally, the City should now own at least one nuclear reactor. It would be the cheapest way of providing its 4 million citizens with reliable power. Instead, our leaders are putting high hopes on wind and sun, which are far more costly and not sufficiently reliable or continuous to allow the City to grow.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Should we support a carbon tax?

Last year Treasury put out a Discussion Paper on a carbon tax. Discussion was muted in the extreme. Indeed, Government may have been left with the idea that a carbon tax is positively desired. Recently the WWF and others have argued that business should meekly lie down and accept the tax. Nothing can be further from the truth.

Most arguments for a carbon tax start with the assumption that it would be possible to reduce the impact of climate change if we as a nation reduced our emissions. This would be true if all nations agreed to reduce their emissions, but that day is far off. Carbon emissions have dropped in a few European countries, to be true, but globally they have risen. Indeed, since the Kyoto Protocol came into force in 1998, emissions have accelerated, not declined.

Moreover the present trend is towards further increases. Many optimists speak of ‘the transition to a low-carbon world’, but it is presently a truly fruitless wish. There is no transition. Instead we face a world with ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In 2010, South Africa’s emissions were about 400 million tons per annum, which amounts to less than 1.5% of the global total. At present China emits about 8 000 million tons, growing annually by over 600 million tons. Whatever we did would be insufficient to offset the annual Chinese growth.

That being said, South Africa has a policy which seems reasonable. Our Climate Change Response Green Paper commits us to “making a fair contribution to the global effort to achieve the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

However, the Green Paper also gives a rider. “South Africa …. is committed to reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions in order to successfully facilitate the agreement and implementation of an effective and binding global agreement, together with all the other countries responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions.” So Government recognises that it would not be effective to act alone. If we are to reduce our carbon emissions, it can only be as part of a global agreement involving all other significant emitters.

IRP2010 showed that any significant reduction in our emissions would increase our energy costs significantly – and already it is clear that the recent increases in prices are causing closure of industries, such as our only zinc smelter, with attendant job losses.

An argument for a carbon tax is that we could face trade sanctions unless we act to reduce our emissions. There are few nations that would be able to impose such sanctions, for the simple reason that there are few that have managed to reduce their emissions. Thus the threat is more imagined than real.

Those in favour of a carbon tax argue that we cannot continue on our present path. They claim that business-as-usual is not an option. The trouble with this view is that our present path is not working. We are not creating jobs at the rate needed to drag ourselves out of poverty. We need an environment conducive to growth, not one littered with artificial constraints and bureaucratic traps. We certainly do not need new taxes, particularly a tax like the proposed carbon tax which will achieve nothing except further slowing of our growth (and even the Discussion Paper accepts that).

A problem with growth is that it comes at the cost of greater demand for energy. There is a very direct relation between the domestic product per capita and the energy used per capita. Nearly all the wealthy nations have emissions of over 9t of carbon dioxide per capita per year. Nearly half the world’s nations have emissions of less than 3t, and they are all poor.

The supposed solution to this dilemma is to grow the renewable sector of the energy economy. This presumes that renewable energy technologies are a replacement for our existing fossil fuel technologies. Unfortunately, that is not yet true. The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has just released its latest figures. It has been working hard to reduce Britain’s carbon emissions, and they have definitely fallen. Nearly 10% of its energy comes from low-carbon sources – but nuclear power is two-thirds of that, and wind energy is less than 5%, or 0.4% of the total supply.

Analysis of the reasons for the drop in the UK emissions soon shows that it is due to the decline in coal use, which has more than halved since 1990, and an increase in natural gas, which has nearly doubled over the same period. However, this has come at a cost – nearly 40% of the gas is now imported, so Britain no longer enjoys the energy security it has had historically. Its demand now exceeds what it can produce.

There are high hopes in South Africa, expressed in the IRP2010, that we will soon be able to resolve our energy supply problems via renewable energies. But renewable energies have not provided Britain with a sustainable solution to growth with a reduction in carbon emissions, and they seem most unlikely to provide us with an answer. If the British experience is anything to go by, our best hopes are to rush to nuclear power and to hope that the Karoo will yield its shale gas to fracking. The recent proposal by WWF and its lobby, that we should rush into a carbon tax to achieve low-carbon growth, seems very misguided.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Chief Justice

Chief Justice Ngcobo has always been the epitome of integrity. His action in withdrawing his acceptance of the probably illegal extension of his contract is a further illustration of this.

Will some of our leaders who have become mired in controversy kindly note and resign honorably, rather than brazening things out and hoping it will all blow over? Sadly, that includes our State President, whose apparent involvement in the arms deal is not something that has been brushed under the carpet by his appointment to the high office.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Norwegian Tragedy

Who can fail to be moved by the Norwegian tragedy? An apparently normal person behaves in a totally abnormal way, and takes about a hundred lives, many of them so young that they can have done nothing to affect him.

In all the biographical information that has poured out, I have been surprised that the focus has been on Breivik's school life. The man is 32 years old. What has he been doing since he left school? Joining organisations, trawling the internet, playing digital war games, buying weapons, learning how to make explosives, and renting farms.

But what has allowed him to do all this? Most of us, at the revolutionary stage of our lives, find we have a job to do, to stay alive. Most of our time goes into the sheer slog of earning our daily bread. To be sure, some lucky people of my acquaintance had parents rich enough for them to survive without wasting time working, but in Breivik's case, it seems his parents were estranged and in no position to support him. Apart from scrounging the occasional meal off his mother, he was very much alone.

So was he unemployed, and able to draw enough from the State not only to live, but to mount an attack upon it? From all that we know, this seems to be the case. If so, then surely there can be no greater reason to damn the socialist ethic, than that it carries such seed for its own destruction.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Protect our Public Protector!

Wow! What a breath of fresh air. With every passing day my admiration for our Public Protector, Advocate Thuli Madonsela, increases. She has opened the window of corruption, and some of the foul gas is escaping. Her courage is outstanding.

Her latest report nails the whole bunch behind the Durban police saga. They entered a lease for 10 years at R125/sq metre, not R40 which was the going rate. 'They' are all named - Bheki Cele, the Chief of Police; public works minister Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde; former director general Siviwe Dongwane; and, of course, property tycoon Roux Shabangu, the landlord.

Can we please have a few more like her in Government? It only needs a few, and the whole pack of cards will come tumbling down. The corrupt will finally start to turn each other in.

But the danger of this to the powerful in Government is obvious. Our Public Protector really needs protection.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Any one for taxing carbon?

In Australia, they have just taken a decision to introduce a carbon tax. The scheme was not easy to ram through. It is surrounded by all sorts of gives and takes, to sweeten the pill. However, the mining industry in Australia has now come out with a statement that it will cost millions of dollars.

In South Africa, we don't need industry to tell us the costs of a carbon tax - Treasury does the job for us. Its discussion paper says "The effects on GDP under the different non-closure and closure scenarios demonstrate that GDP declined by 0.5per cent and 13.9per cent respectively" (para 151).

Australia is a developed nation with a GDP per person of $38510 in 2010; we are developing, with a GDP per capita of $10280. We cannot afford a carbon tax. It will stop our development.

We need to create wealth to raise up our people, not to throw it around feeling good that we are doing our bit to save the world. We could stop all use of fossil fuel tomorrow - the economy would die, people would starve, and the world would not notice the difference our sacrifice had made.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Agricultural mania

The UN is at it again! "A solid shift to green technologies in world farming is vital if endemic food crises are to be overcome and production boosted to support the global population." "Food security must now be attained through green technology so as to reduce the use of chemical inputs – fertilizers and pesticides – and to make more efficient use of energy, water and natural resources." "A sharp move away from large-scale, intensive systems of agriculture is essential if growing environmental and land degradation is to be halted." "The main policy focus should be promotion and development of sustainable agriculture, with an emphasis on small farm holders in developing countries." Quotes from a report just released from the U.N's Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

230 years ago, Ned Ludd broke a spinning jenny which, he believed, was impoverishing the rural workers. He gave his name to the Luddites, who, in the early 1800's were bent on smashing every new-fangled machine they could find. What they failed to realize was that the whole nature of work was changing. The invention of the steam engine had put power into the hands of Man. Suddenly, productivity was not a matter of brawn but of brains. The machine had set people free of drudgery.

Since then, life expectancy has soared, hunger has been essentially banished, and we can take human rights almost for granted. The difference in the opportunities for men and, in particular, for women, are incalculable. It is only the small farm holder in developing countries that can experience anything like the horrors of much of 19th century life.

Yet this is the grail the New Luddites are holding up, as if it were something sacred. Keep the folk on the lands, let them grind away, toil to feed themselves and, if anything is left over, let them sell the surplus. What a recipe for a stultifying life! The day ruled by the weather and the seasons, the night by the absolute need to rest the muscles to be ready for the fight which starts at dawn.

The evidence of the Green Revolution is clear. Let us have fertilizers, insecticides, improved seed, machinery to prepare the soil and to harvest the crop. Then, a few workers can feed a hundred, so freeing the hundred for more productive work.

For the past 30 years, the developing nations have been growing their food output faster than their population, by creating large, efficient farms that are able to afford the capital needed to grow food without excessive toil. It is only in lands where this development has not taken place that starvation is a continual threat. Sadly, Africa has too many countries still reliant on peasant farmers. The UN would condemn them to ongoing starvation.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Putting the cart before the horse

Today's climate idiocy concerns plans to set up an African agency to manage the hundreds of millions of dollars that some expect to come our way. The money is supposed to come from developed nations who feel guilty about having polluted our atmosphere. We Africans may have made a small contribution to the pollution, but it is as nothing to what the developed have done.

Of course it would be nice to have lots of lovely lolly to throw around - but the chances of us actually getting any seem vanishingly small. The developed nations are going through a financial crisis of their own making. They are certainly not in a position to start sending us cash to build our infrastructure or offset any damage caused by their emissions or any excuse for being generous. Right now they face citizens most unhappy with the loss of unaffordable entitlements, but they are having to bite the bullet because the money is just not there - they threw it away, and have no more to throw.

So setting up a new agency is just another example of wasting money on pipe dreams - first make certain you have the money in your paw, then agree on how you are going to administer it (and make certain it gets spent wisely).

Incidentally, the Copenhagen Accord was predicated on money flowing. It isn't going to, so the Accord is as dead as the late (un)lamented Kyoto Protocol.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The low carbon economy

As we move towards COP 17, the noises become more and more hysterical. Today's collection is all about the move to the low carbon economy. "We need to radically change our economic models and ensure a transition to a low-carbon economy,” say Imbewu Sustainability Legal Specialists. "World Wide Fund (WWF) climate change programme manager Richard Worthington says he hopes to see the South African government work hard over the next four months and present a coherent low-carbon action plan for the country."

Such pious hopes! So far from reality. The average country gets 87% of its primary energy from fossil fuels. South Africa is a little worse because it has no hydro power and very little nuclear power, so 96% of its primary energy is fossil.

Fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide in the course of providing energy. So this low-carbon pipe dream means low fossil fuel.

It should be obvious to the proponents of the dream, that you can't drop around 90% of your primary energy source overnight. Sure, renewable energy is growing - but off a very low base. Last year, renewable energy (other than hydro) more than doubled - but the fossil fuel energy grew 25 times more than the renewable energy.

But the biggest stumbling block is not the sheer impracticality of an overnight change. It is the fact that fossil fuel use is one of the biggest, and in many cases, THE biggest contributor to the exchequer. Go low carbon, and you lose your tax base. As propositions go, its chances of success are really low.

This, surely, is the reason why ideas like the Kyoto Protocol have been such spectacular failures. Governments have quietly worked out for themselves that reducing your national carbon burden might be a Good Thing for the world but a very poor thing for your own pocket. That is why Kyoto will not be renewed at COP 17. That is why such formulae for saving the world will die a sudden death.

So let us hope that COP 17 finally forces the pious believers into facing harsh reality - fossil fuels are going to be around for quite a while. Adapt or die!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The damage done by the carbon mob

I am giggling slightly about today's tale of China holding up a HUGE order for Europe's biggest airliner, on the grounds that they don't like the EU's carbon tax on use of the European airspace. The tax will come into effect next January.

The EU has been allowed to get away with taxing things that aren't theirs for too long. The unelected gougers that inhabit Brussels seem to think they own the world. Because they are essentially not answerable to anyone, there is no one to throw the out of office for raising taxes that shouldn't be raised. "No taxation without representation" is quite a good principle, which has been discarded in the name of European unity.

Their desire to tax things carboniferous, all done with the finest of motives, namely to save us from ourselves, is having an effect on all of us. Our National Treasury wants to introduce a carbon tax. Part of the thinking behind their proposal is that some nations are likely to introduce sanctions unless we have a carbon tax. Some nations? Sure - all the European nations. Their trade is suffering because they have to pay a carbon tax. Why should they make themselves uncompetitive and us more competitive? Their answer - we should be equally uncompetitive.

Never mind that all these good intentions achieve absolutely nothing. Look, for a moment, at the world's use of fossil fuels. Since 1998 it has increased by 34%. 1998 is a good year to start - because that was the year the Kyoto Protocol, designed to limit carbon emissions, came into being. Limit? Carbon emissions have increased faster than ever.

Even worse is the fact that the good intentions are having some awfully bad effects. In their desire to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, some first-world countries are encouraging the use of biofuels. They are even subsidizing biofuel production.

The food production of the world is growing faster than the population. This would be marvellous, except for the fact that the food available to feed people is actually decreasing. The result is a global surge in the price of food. We first saw this back in 2007-8. Most rational people thought the message had gotten through to Governments - do NOT subsidize biofuels.

It seems us rational people were optimists - Governments are more stupid than we thought. The subsidies continue, and food becomes much more expensive as a result. Everything that grows is being turned into alcohol - wheat, maize, rice, sugar, sorghum, even casava.

The real problem, however, is the thesis that carbon dioxide is bad for us. So ingrained has this thesis become, that excessive carbon emissions are now thought to be worse than starvation. The carbon mob are actually responsible for global malnutrition, thanks to their misplaced desire to save the planet.

Perhaps the cancellation of a megaorder for planes will finally be sufficient for them to wake up to reality - but I doubt it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Public awareness of climate change

Rajendra Pachauri, boss of the IPCC, has said "Public awareness is really going to be the key to spur a deal to avert heatwaves, droughts, floods and rising seas." Translated, this means we may expect to be bombarded with increasing nonsense about heat waves, droughts, floods and rising seas.

We know that the world has warmed for the past 150 years. Any changes in the weather or the sea level should be apparent. Such changes as are observable cannot be linked to more carbon dioxide in the air. Our own Weather Service fails to find any increase in the incidence of droughts or floods or heat waves, and it is their job to tell us what is happening to the weather. The sea level continues to rise at around 3mm/a, which it has done for the past 150 years. The rise appears to be the result of the end of the last ice age, 11 000 years ago, when sea levels were 120m lower than today.

So steel yourself to more IPCC nonsense - Durban COP is coming, and the Treasury wants every excuse to rape us with carbon taxes.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The global rise of natural gas

There is a fascinating report just out from the International Energy Agency [IEA]. Since the 2010 report, the world has changed - gas has come into the picture big time.

When replacing other fossil fuels, natural gas can lead to lower emissions of greenhouse gases and local pollutants. It can help diversify energy supply, and so improve energy security. It can provide flexibility and back-up capacity as more variable capacity comes on line in power generation.

I could hardly have put it better myself. Natural gas is a beautiful fuel. For all the above reasons, we should be actively promoting fracking in the Karoo. If we could find significant gas there, it would revolutionize our energy scene.

Of course, some are worried about the environmental impacts. The IEA addresses this:
Use of hydraulic fracturing in unconventional gas production has raised some serious environmental concerns and tested existing regulatory regimes. Based on the available data, we estimate that shale gas produced to proper standards of environmental responsibility has slightly higher "well-to-burner" emissions than conventional gas, with the combustion of gas being the dominant source of emissions. Best practice in production, effectively monitored and regulated, can mitigate other potential environmental risks, such as excessive water use, conservation and disposal.

For those concerned that unconventional gas such as shale gas is too new or untested, it is worth noting the report that over 60% of the huge US gas market is now unconventional.

The report asks if the gap between our climate actions and our climate goals are "becoming insurmountable?" That begs the question as to whether our climate goals are realistic. They are not. They are predicated on increasing levels of climate disaster due to climate change. But the world has been warming for the past 150 years, and evidence for increases in climate catastrophes is hard to find. If the hypothesis is weak, the goals are likely to be wrong, and it is increasingly clear the goals are in the wrong place altogether. There is no rationale for a carbon tax.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Forests galore

The United Nations Environment Programme has released a report to mark World Environment Day entitled 'Forests in a Green Economy: A Synthesis'.

As you might expect, the case is wildly overstated. It claims that the devastating effects of climate change will disappear and millions of jobs will be created.

"The devastating effects of climate change" are almost impossible to see - the world is getting warmer, but only slightly. You have to look very hard to link any devastation to it being warmer, yet even a cursory glance will show significant benefits (we live longer in a warmer world, for one thing).

The claim of creating lots of jobs ignores all those who have jobs clearing forests, and who will be put out of work by reforestation. It is a classic zero sum game.

As usual, UNEP inhabits a different world from most of us, and its prescriptions are those for another world.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gaslands and fracking

The film Gaslands has had a huge influence on public opinion about fracking in the Karoo. Do we want our water bursting into flames, like they showed in the film?

I have long said that I doubted the veracity of the tale. If it were commonly associated with fracking, then someone would have reported it long ago. Fracking has been around since the 1940's and over one million holes have been fracked.

Indeed, the truth is now out - the phenomenon was first reported in 1936.

A 1976 study by the Colorado Division of Water found that this area was plagued with gas in the water problems back then. And it was naturally occurring. As the report stated there were "troublesome amounts of methane" in the water decades before fracking began. It seems that in geographical areas gas has always been in the water.

But Josh Fox knew this and chose not to put it in Gasland. I asked him about this omission at a recent screening at Northwestern University in Chicago. He said he had not included these facts that questioned his alarmism because "they were not relevant." He also dropped the bombshell that I had not been aware of that there were media reports of people lighting their water as far back as 1936. Again this was not included in Gasland because it was not relevant.

The video confession was pulled for copyright reasons, but still exists on

I haven't heard any reports that the nomination for an Oscar has been withdrawn - or of any apologies from our local activists for having misled everyone.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

That insane carbon tax!

There is a report out today ( giving an assessment of the cost of the proposed carbon tax to the mining industry. It reinforces my view that the tax is idiotic.

Why should we wreck our economy when it is North America and Europe that are the big polluters? What happened to the "polluter pays" principle? Among the developed nations, only Europe has inflicted a carbon tax on itself, and that would never have happened without Brussels. Should we really be the only developing nation to commit economic suicide this way?

Friday, May 13, 2011

The prophet dies before his prophecy fails

Earthlife Africa's Saliem Fakir has a long piece about how it was the 'unknown unknowns' that caused the disaster at Fukushima.

He is wrong, of course. For instance, he says "Nobody expected the reactor fuel would leak radiation so quickly owing to cool water not being able to get into the reactor after most of it had evaporated in the essential stages." What does Fakir think they provided emergency generators at a power station for?? Everyone expected that the reactor fuel would fail if cooling failed. The designers did their best to ensure that cooling would not fail. The tsunami proved them wrong.

And then he stoops to guilt by association - "And the Japanese economy lost close to $300-billion in the first few weeks of the disaster." That was the result of the tsunami, NOT the result of the nuclear incident. Soon we will be told that over 10 000 died at Fukushima.

Finally he moves into the prophet mode - "The long-term damage is significant. The area around the disaster won’t be habitable for decades." How does he know? The accident happened in March; the levels of radiation in the present exclusion zone have fallen nearly to background over much of the area.

Long term gloom is so very easy to predict - the prophet is dead by the time his falsehoods become apparent.