Lower emissions now a sustainability and cost imperative

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Air in the country's economic heartland Gauteng remains among the most polluted

The enforcement of South Africa’s carbon tax is adding to the focus by mines and industry on greenhouse gas emissions, raising the interest in the potential for converting methane into energy.

According to Vis Reddy, chairman of SRK Consulting in South Africa, the company’s established expertise in air quality management has broadened to integrate with its climate change focus.

“Traditionally, air quality management was part of environmental impact assessments – and this remains an important compliance aspect for our clients,” said Reddy. “The field of air quality and emissions today, however, links directly to climate change concerns and even energy security imperatives.”

He pointed to the example of methane emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas that has 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, in trapping heat within the earth’s atmosphere. As companies look to improve their sustainability ratings, many are considering generating energy from the methane they produce. This is now more easily achieved, as they can take advantage of South Africa’s recently relaxed private power generation regulations.

“Industry can now explore these options without needing to clear onerous regulatory hurdles that used to prevent private energy production,” he explained. “It is becoming an exciting opportunity for companies to reduce their carbon footprints. The case to be made is not only strategic but makes financial sense in terms of reducing carbon tax liability and addressing the rising cost of electricity  – and unreliability – of the country’s grid energy.”

In the context of South Africa’s predominantly coal-fired power infrastructure, the environmental benefits of substituting grid power with gas-fired energy are enhanced. Companies making better use of their own methane emissions will also see their carbon footprint improve from drawing less from the national utility. There are other impacts related to coal-fired energy – such as the mining of coal – that are also avoided in a scenario where companies are more self-sufficient in energy.

Among the industries where SRK is seeing more interest in these options are those dealing with biomass waste – which could be from animals or crops. There could also be potential in sewage treatment works, as sewage emits considerable quantities of methane.

“SRK has responded to these trends by establishing a focused group of professional scientists and engineers who are specialised in providing solutions for air quality challenges in the context of climate change,” said Reddy. “We can now give clients a very focused offering in these sectors, where we see increasing demand.”

With the global move toward responsible sourcing of commodities, and greater public awareness of sustainability, the drive towards lower carbon emissions is being felt across the board, he argued. This has put the spotlight on the mining sector, for example, but equally on retail products that must respond to consumer sentiment.

“Mines in South Africa have been among the leaders in developing renewable energy capacity, and this will have significant impacts on its greenhouse gas footprint,” he said. The waste management industry also have opportunities to capture methane emissions generated in bio-digestors and this can be used to generate electricity for in-house consumption or sale to other users connected to the grid – although there was little sign of movement in this sector.

He pointed out that the air in the country’s economic heartland, Gauteng, remains among the most polluted in the world especially during winter – reflecting a broader air quality issue that directly affects public health. The factors behind this are numerous but rapidly rising electricity prices and loadshedding may drive households to use more wood and coal again primarily for space heating purposes.

“This is a setback, as there had been progress in improving the air quality in cities like Johannesburg, as more residents migrated to using electricity as their primary energy source during the 2000’s,” he said. “As electricity has become more expensive and supply more disrupted, this trend looks like being reversed.”

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