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It’s been a particularly cold week in Cape Town. I find myself recoiling at the touch of my steering wheel and, to compensate for the cold, I blast the heater directly at my hands.  With the heat on full my car feels stuffy, so instead of air circulating in the car, I choose to let in outside air.  Almost immediately I can smell the fumes of the car in front of me – fossil fumes: fumes from burning fossil fuels, fumes that plague the city; most, if not all, cites.  I quickly flip the switch back.

How do we get rid of this pollution?

Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Mike Smuts (InsideSouthAfrica). License Creative Commons.

Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Mike Smuts (InsideSouthAfrica). License Creative Commons.

Since beginning my research project on air pollution and climate change at the University of Cape Town, I’ve become acutely aware of air pollution – that I’m breathing it in – and chances are, no matter which city you live in, you’re breathing it in too. Fossil fuels – the largest source of energy worldwide (over 80%) – cause many problems, air pollution being just one.  So what do we do about it? How do we get rid of this pollution that’s harming us?

As with most seemingly intractactable human problems, we need to look to the source: we need to stop burning the fuels that cause it.  But we can’t just stop using energy and that’s why a global movement towards clean, green energy is imperative. We need a clean energy revolution!  This will not only reduce air pollution, but it will also help to solve a bigger problem: climate change. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from our use of fossil fuels are the cause of climate change, and climate change will have many negative impacts on society, not just air quality.

Why clean energy?

On the problem of climate change, global leaders have agreed to try to keep warming to well under 1.5°C.  To do this we need to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  A clean energy revolution is the only way we’ll ever hit that target.

Importance in South Africa

While clearly a global challenge, a clean energy revolution is of great importance in South Africa too. There are many reasons for this, but I list just three:

  • Our people are vulnerable: South Africa has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world.  This means that while there may be many wealthy people who have the capacity to cope with climate change impacts, there are also many people who have little to no capacity for adaptation.  That our people are vulnerable to climate change impacts should, if anything, give the country motivation to reduce our GHG emissions.
  • We have high GHG emissions: South Africa gets most of its energy from coal-fired power plants, which are extremely carbon intensive (88% of energy production). This means that a clean energy revolution will have a high impact on our country’s emissions and there is much room for improvement.
  • It will help development: Clean energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels! South Africa is still developing, and a cheaper, cleaner source of energy is an ideal thing to invest in for a better future.
Renewable Energy in South Africa. Photo: Powertime.co.za

Renewable Energy in South Africa. Photo: Powertime.co.za

Being a developing nation has its challenges when it comes to a clean energy revolution.  People argue that in order to develop we need to be able to emit more, but instead of a challenge, we can see this as an opportunity: in new construction we have the opportunity to include renewable energy, we have the opportunity to create new jobs in the clean energy field, we have lots of sunshine and we have wind. What are we waiting for?

What can you do?

This revolution is a massive task that requires massive action. While it may seem that such action must be government-led, like any revolution, this one needs to be driven by the people. And there are actually things you can do:

  • Divest from fossil fuels: If you have money invested somewhere, make sure you’re not investing in companies that use fossil fuels.  And if you plan to invest soon, rather invest in fossil free companies.
  • Make your voice heard: Join clean energy marches or events in your area, sign up for petitions, or get involved in an organization promoting clean energy… there are so many! (FossilFreeSa350.org)
  • Switch to solar: Install a solar geyser or better yet, solar panels to power your home.
  • Change your mode of transport: If you usually drive to work or school, why not walk or cycle? And if that’s not possible, what about using public transport? or car-pooling?


Climate March, South Africa

With so many ways to make a difference, there really isn’t much in the way of excuses to get involved in this revolution. You’re still not sure?  Let me give you some room to think about it, to breathe…. That’s right – we need action so we can all breathe! There may be some uncertainties about climate change, but the one certainty is that we need a change.  So lets start now, let’s do our part.

And with that, I’ve nothing much left to say but…



Originally published at African Climate and Development Initiative

Eve Wicksteed

About Eve Wicksteed

Eve is from South Africa and has studied atmospheric science and climate change. She is interested in writing and sharing her knowledge around these important issues.