New Internationalist

Blinded by the light

Issue 391

The offset controversy is not just to do with planting trees. Trusha Reddy inspects the shortcomings behind another bright idea.

A dusty tarmac road leads into Guguletu – a sprawling apartheid-created township 20 kilometres in the hazy distance from Cape Town. For Sibiongile Mthembu it is home. A lifelong resident, Mthembu shows me around the council housing projects where he handed out free energy-efficient light bulbs. Aged 24 and unemployed for two years, Mthembu got a lucky break last year when he was recruited off the street by a local energy consultancy. The consultancy was commissioned by Climate Care, a British company that invests in supposedly climate-friendly projects in the South, to distribute energy-efficient light bulbs in Guguletu in exchange for the more typical and wasteful incandescent bulbs. Climate Care then sells the CO2 emissions estimated to have been saved from all this to British residents and companies wishing voluntarily to ‘offset’ or counteract their own climate-damaging activities such as flying. Mthembu is an unsuspecting accomplice in a complex global carbon market, but locally he is a symbol of fortuity and hard work.

This particular offset project, set up by Climate Care, resembles the popular reality TV show, The Apprentice. 10,000 light bulbs. 10 days. 10 people. 28 cents per light bulb installed. Who will install the greatest number of bulbs in the shortest space of time and make the biggest profit? In the end, all but Mthembu will be fired and sent back to the streets from whence they came. As scripts go, this one does not include any credible notion of sustainable development; but it makes good copy.

Rush job

‘They were in a hurry. They just told me it will last for many years,’ local resident Carol Ndungane told me. Her neighbour Pat Mgengi said he accepted the four Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs) – the standard number given to all households – as replacement for four of his incandescent light bulbs simply because they were free. At 15W these bulbs are more energy efficient than traditional 40W, 60W, and 100W varieties, which give off only 5 per cent light while the rest of the energy is lost as heat. CFLs also last about 10 times longer than incandescents. Mgengi shrugs indifferently: ‘We just accept what they introduce to us.’

Climate Care visited the site before implementation of the light-bulb project began. But even a cursory look would have revealed that problems in the neighbourhood go much deeper than light bulbs. Context is everything. As Mgengi shows me around, it is immediately apparent that the house is in a poor state – faulty wiring, unpainted ceilings, damp walls and so on. Every person I spoke with in the area was in a similar situation. Mgengi was bitter about the Government’s claim that these houses were meant for the poor. But at $150 per month, when most residents earn considerably less, the costs exceed what the poor can afford.

‘Some people are pensioners. They don’t even get that amount of money every month,’ explains Mgengi. ‘They tried taking people out of the houses and we put them back. Even after paying the full amount asked, some don’t have the title deeds. We are going to court time and again. The case is still on… We are just trying to live like any other human being. We are really suffering in the new South Africa.’

Further probing on my part however makes Mgengi suspicious. He explains that everyone who comes to speak to him has their own hidden agenda: the consultants who write reports, the tourists who come to gawk in bizarre fascination, myself researching an issue that’s irrelevant to him, even the people giving out free light bulbs. There is something of the absurd about it all. Here he sits in his crumbling house with fantastic new energy-saving lights. Lights he will never be able to afford to replace.

Shining a light on poverty

CFLs sell for about $2.80 a bulb here in South Africa. Traditional incandescent bulbs cost just 50 cents. In a neighbourhood in which basic needs and survival are the primary concerns, where residents make their living from selling loose cigarettes and sweets, there is no contest when it comes to which light bulbs they buy. Upon deeper investigation the entire premise that brings me here – namely, handing out light bulbs to lower-income residents as a ‘sustainability’ project – raises too many questions.

I turn to local university professor Dieter Holm for some insights. Professor Holm believes that while there is no doubt that a project of this nature ‘is easy to do’ and ‘immediately effective’ in saving on domestic electricity demand, it would be more effective to introduce these bulbs at a higher level. Higher income groups are more inclined to experiment with novel technology, he argues. They also use much more electricity. Furthermore, if such technology is introduced to lower income groups and not seen to be used by higher income users, the product becomes stigmatized – a very real possibility in the South African context. An example of this, he explains, is when solar heating was subsidized for lower income residents. In an effort to make the product cheap and accessible, manufacturers made an inferior product which people ultimately rejected. The great risk with introducing CFLs in this way is that it will be considered a ‘poor man’s version of a light bulb’.

The big retailers that stock energy-efficient bulbs are not located in townships like Guguletu. A return trip in a crammed 15-seater taxi to the city costs nearly 2 dollars – too much just to buy over-expensive light bulbs when their cheaper counterpart can be bought at the local corner shop. This could be an argument in favour of the project, but there are other problems.

The free light bulbs given away by Climate Care raised expectations. People expected to get more free bulbs when they needed to be replaced. When asked by residents if they would come back to deliver more, Mthembu admits that he and his fellow light bulb distributors resorted to outright lying. Of the 69 low energy bulbs reported as broken from the households surveyed by Climate Care two months after the project started, none have yet been replaced.

Climate careless?

A fundamental aspect of such offset projects is that they prove to be ‘additional’ to what would have happened without carbon financing. As such, Climate Care argues that this project would not have gone ahead without them since it is ‘not required by legislation, not common practice [and] not financially viable without carbon funding’. They may well have gotten away with this rationale if Cape Town hadn’t experienced dramatic electricity blackouts a few months after the project began. After a major problem with one of the generators at energy-giant Eskom’s Koeberg nuclear power plant, the city was shrouded in intermittent darkness for nights in a row. The ‘Koeberg crisis’ as it is now commonly referred to, brought into sharp focus two important and environmentally connected concerns in the country: the over-reliance upon nuclear (and coal elsewhere in the country) as a source of energy and the importance of energy-saving.

As a result, what Climate Care deemed wouldn’t happen, did. Eskom devised (and is well into implementing) a recovery plan that includes providing five million energy efficient light bulbs to low-income households, among a host of other energy-saving measures. Eskom, one of South Africa’s largest transnational corporations, clearly has the revenue to back up the plan. It is set to spend $17.5 billion on this energy-saving programme alone.

And there is another concern. Climate Care’s Managing Director Tom Morton, informed me that his company only paid for the light bulbs and the reporting, not the implementation. Cape Town was made to pay for the actual distribution work. These factors and other call into question the ‘additionality’ arguments of the project. Other questions remain over just how the company expects to monitor whether the lightbulbs last their stickered lifespan of 5-10 years, and how closely the energy-saving gains would be measured.

Despite these ambiguities, Climate Care’s annual report for 2005 considers the project done and dusted. None of these concerns are presented to their clients. Morton also dismisses the criticisms levelled against his company. According to Morton, ‘Carbon offsets are a first step towards pricing carbon in our lives as well as making real reductions in the process.’

It is precisely this pricing of carbon that has also made selling offsets big business. The company is not a charity. It justifies its corporate structure by arguing that it provides a service that ‘helps people make the link between their activity and its impact’.

Partners in pollution

I wonder how Climate Care’s biggest partners, which include British Airways and British Gas, fit into this green-tinted picture. How are they serviced? Climate Care defends these highly polluting companies as among the ‘best environment performers’. Such a claim does beggar belief. British Gas is, after all, in the gas business, which is a major contributor to climate change. The company is currently pursuing legal action against Bolivia for taking a democratic decision to nationalize its oil resources. It is currently a partner in two large gas fields in the country and has eight exploration blocks that have not yet started production. None of this strikes me as the image that springs to mind when thinking about positive solutions to climate change.

Presumably the British Airways partnership is part of its attempt to ward off criticism from environmental groups who argue that aircraft emissions are among the most insidious contributors to global warming. But while the airline giant has partnered with Climate Care and offers its customers the option of ‘offsetting’ their flights’ climate-damaging emissions, BA is also vigorously promoting massive expansion of British airports, ramping up its inter-city commuter flight services and has now launched a budget airline to popular short-haul holiday destinations. Seen in this light, investing in miniscule carbon-saving activities in the South in the name of sustainable development could be viewed as a blatant marketing ploy.

For Climate Care, how companies are using their offsets is not an issue. ‘The climate crisis is so urgent that we should not worry about the motivation of our clients,’ they say in their 2004 Annual Report.

As the sun sets on another day in Guguletu and the notorious Cape Town winds threaten chilly vulnerable council homes, I ponder on the complex links that bring me here and what it all means for people like Mthembu. For now, at least, Mthembu is gainfully employed delivering Eskom’s energy-efficient light bulbs to 86,000 houses in Guguletu – the ones Climate Care missed out on its 10-day sojourn in Africa not long ago. The ones that were supposedly not going to happen without Climate Care’s money.

Trusha Reddy is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Some names in this article have been changed to protect sources.

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