On February 29, a moratorium imposed by the government of the Canadian province of Alberta expired. The moratorium, introduced unexpectedly in August 2023, had halted all new approvals for wind and solar projects bigger than 1MW.

The reason given for the moratorium was that the government wanted time to study “issues related to land use, reclamation [rehabilitation] and grid reliability”.

Alberta has experienced an explosion in the growth of renewable energy. It is set to achieve its target to phase out coal power by 2030 this year – six years early.

But rapid growth in renewable energy projects apparently generated concern about the responsibility to “clean up renewable energy infrastructure” and about the use of agricultural land.

As it lifted the moratorium, the province announced sweeping new rules for future renewable energy projects, including a ban on new wind projects located within 35km “buffer zones” around national parks and other “pristine viewscapes”. The Pembina Institute, a Canadian think-tank, estimates that the 35km radius rule could cover up to 76% of southern Alberta.

These rules do not apply to any other industry. And here’s the kicker: Alberta is also Canada’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, the former extracted from extensive, unsightly – to say the least – and environmentally calamitous oil or tar sands.

The moratorium and ensuing rules have, according to The Guardian, “baffled economists, environmental groups and business executives”. But this renewables whataboutism has all the characteristics of a successful anti-climate lobbying strategy by the fossil fuel industry: to cast doubt on renewable energy projects’ social licence to operate and slow down their deployment, thereby extending the lifespan of fossil fuels.

The fossil fuel industry, through its expansive influence over politics and the mainstream media, has been aggressively spreading fears about the land area required for renewable energy projects, the impact of mining for critical minerals, and the liabilities associated with recycling wind turbines and solar panels.

There are valid concerns associated with these issues, but they pale in comparison to the consequences of the exploration for and extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

A 2016 study by the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research and other bodies found that supplying South Africa’s then total electricity demand with wind power alone would require only 0.6% of the country’s available land mass to be dedicated to wind farms.

The International Energy Agency projects that just under 30Mt of critical minerals will be needed by 2040 for clean energy technology. Yet the global supply of coal in 2023 alone exceeded 8-billion tons.

The recycling of wind turbines and solar panels is a crucial issue, but so is the rehabilitation of coal mines: in South Africa, the failure to properly regulate mine closure has multifaceted and devastating social and environmental consequences, from the proliferation of so-called zama zamas to tailings dam breaches, collapsing mine shafts, acid mine drainage and the destruction of productive agricultural land, not to mention the health and safety risks for surrounding communities.

Double standards

It is a sign of the success of the fossil fuel lobby that people who genuinely care about preserving the natural world often seem to be far more active in their opposition to proposed renewable energy projects – particularly wind farms – than the comparatively gargantuan repercussions of coal, oil and gas enterprises.

Like recent reports of organised opposition to the Albany Wind Farm, a proposed project of “up to 25 wind turbines” to be located 7km east of Makhanda.

The civil society group Dear South Africa and the Indalo Private Game Reserve Association – representing eight local game reserves – are drumming up support to halt the project, arguing that the wind turbines will have a negative impact on scenic views and biodiversity in an area where the local economy is heavily dependent on wildlife tourism. The Albany Wind Farm page on Dear South Africa’s website has attracted 1,240 comments.

I have sympathy with their concerns, and the cumulative effects on scenery and biodiversity should of course be considered in relation to any major development.

But why does a 25-turbine wind farm generate so much upset when there is barely a whisper of public opposition to the network of coal mines slowly choking the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, or to the proposal to mine coal on the borders of the Kruger National Park, or to the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone, the Chinese-backed, coal-fuelled industrial zone set to destroy vast swathes of Limpopo bushveld?

Politicising renewable energy by over-emphasising its negative consequences is a tactic of the fossil fuel industry aimed at one thing and one thing only: protecting the fossil fuel industry. Don’t let yourself be fooled.

This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 7 March 2024.

By: Tracey Davies

IMAGE: 123RF / dvsakharov

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