Cape Town – One of the factors that hampers the progress toward a sustainable economy in respect of climate change is that political leaders are more concerned with short-term gains, an environmental organisation has asserted.

“Now put yourself in the position of a political leader: I have to make a decision now that I don’t have a direct cause and effect link to show voters that I’m doing something for their benefit. It’s an emergency in very slow motion,” Dr Morné du Plessis, CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF) told News24.

While the science around climate change has garnered large consensus, many policy makers have refused to create legislation to implement recommendations, including policies to build the renewable energy sector and to compel companies to limit environmental damage with respect to their business operations.

A global Ipsos survey found that scepticism of climate change was highest in the US, with 58% of respondents believing that human activity was mainly responsible for climate change.

“The human condition then is that if I only have a five year term, – and most constitutions allow for only a second five year term, so most leaders in democracies are only in place for 10 years – so why take the risk” Du Plessis said of political leaders who defer environmental decisions.


Some nations have made moves toward renewable energy, but at some cost to the countries.

Puerto Rico has begun construction of a $36m solar park that will provide energy for 2 500 households and Pacific islands of Tokelau have abandoned fossil fuel generators for 1 500 inhabitants and built a solar farm at a cost of $7m.

The project will save the islands $820 000 per year in fuel costs for diesel generators that were being used to produce electricity.

Locally, a researcher at Stellenbosch University suggested that the correct level of investment, the relatively new technology of concentrated solar power could deliver 15 the energy demands of the country.

“One of the funny things about solar is that South Africans just don’t know it. And it does provide an extremely large potential – much bigger for instance – than wind,” Paul Gauché senior researcher and director of the Solar Thermal Energy Research Group (Sterg) in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University told News24.

Du Plessis conceded that the cost of renewable energy projects was high, but added that their lower running costs made them more attractive over the long term.

Difficult decisions

“Cost is a huge factor. With renewables, most of your costs are upfront – it’s front end loaded – where, when you’re looking at oil, or coal, or gas – there’s constant expense in extracting it.

“The capital expenditure that you have to do up front, sometimes makes it prohibitive in that sense. We’ve got to look at all sorts of creative financial instruments to allow this to happen so that you basically look at the price of your electricity over the lifetime of the solar panel or the wind turbine,” he said.

Russia recently announced that it was considering exiting the Kyoto Protocol after the US and China squabbled over their obligations at the Rio+20 climate conference.

Du Plessis said that leaders were keen extract political power and influence in the short term by avoiding difficult decisions.

“It’s much easier for somebody to decide that they’d not take bad medicine now, knowing that their successor might have to come in and have an amputation.”