Every month, a few dozen people gather in Johannesburg's gritty inner city to learn how to make a solar-powered stove - a parabolic cooker that looks something like a home-made satellite dish yet can direct enough of the sun's energy to boil a pot of water in about 10 minutes.
The workshop run by the GreenHouse People's Environmental Centre Project is just one of its programmes to educate South Africans on energy efficiency and using renewable sources. GreenHouse regularly runs identical projects in the townships and informal settlements on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where many residents still rely on cheaper resources, like paraffin, for cooking, while others go without electricity when they can't pay the bills.
"Electricity is very expensive, and this is one way to harness a natural resource - the sun - that we have plenty of in South Africa," said Dorah Lebelo, the project's executive director.
The stoves also make environmental sense. About 92 percent of South Africa's electricity comes from coal-firing plants, making electricity production the nation's biggest contributor to greenhouse gases.
It's the artificially high levels of these gases - such as carbon monoxide, methane, and nitrous oxide - that has driven up the average global temperature by 0.6 degrees Celsius over the last 100 years, and it is predicted to climb by another 1.4 to 5.8 degrees in the next century, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial nations, such as the United States. But South Africa is in a unique position - with parallels to Brazil, India, Mexico and China - because it straddles both the developing and developed world.
While many of South Africa's poorest households are still without electricity and contribute little to climate change, the nation's wealthier residents and infrastructure consume levels of energy comparable to those in the developed world. As a result, the country faces increased pressure from the international community, including its African neighbours, to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.
South Africa's electricity use continues to rise as government electrifies more and more households. At the end of the apartheid regime in 1994, only 36 percent of households were electrified nationwide, but the figure has grown to more than 70 percent in 10 years, according to Fani Zulu, spokesperson for Eskom, the state-owned energy company.
But in recent months, some observers say, South Africa has taken a proactive role in addressing its share of responsibility for global climate change and advocating for the continent as a whole, which many have declared the region most vulnerable to global warming.
Speaking at a ministerial meeting in Nairobi last month, the South African Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, said he wanted to find "a common African position" on climate change that would support "economic growth, social upliftment, and the Millennium Development Goals" of the continent.
South Africa had recently hosted two parallel conferences on the science and policy implications of climate change. The five-day event was chaired by van Schalkwyk and brought together more than 600 representatives from the nation's science, civil society, business and academic communities.
It was also attended by a number of leading government figures, including Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and the ministers of water affairs and forestry; science and technology; minerals and energy; and ariculture and land affairs; as well as the deputy minister of foreign affairs - a level of involvement that even critics deemed "extraordinary".
"This is the first government-initiated and driven event of its kind, and on this scale, in South Africa," van Schalkwyk said at the conference. "We accept that climate change is happening, that there is compelling evidence that it is being accelerated by human activity, and that it must be addressed."
The conference was held ahead of the 11th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Montreal, which starts on 28 November.
There is increasing consensus among scientists that climate change has been responsible for a variety of environmental changes in recent years, including decreased numbers of some of Africa's indigenous animals and plants, such as the dramatic drop in species in East Africa's tropical reefs. Other examples of climate change on the continent include the spreading 'desertification' of Africa's arid areas, the melting of glacial ice on Mount Kilimanjaro, and the shifting of the Kalahari dune system.
In Africa, climate change is likely to have a notable effect on the continent's fragile agricultural areas, which Dr Phoebe Barnard, specialist scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, said could mean "significant economic cost over time".
"Those agricultural areas that are presently marginally productive will be dramatically less so in the next 50 to 80 years," Barnard told IRIN, adding that climate change was sure to have an impact on Africa's marginalised and poor communities, who were already struggling to make a living in agriculture and fishing.
Climate change specialists said some of the most notable commitments to come out of the October conference included those to establish a South African Energy Research Institute; to compile action plans by various government departments; and to implement a 'scenario-building' process to map how the nation would stabilise greenhouse gas emissions while also focusing on poverty alleviation and job creation.
Another key promise was made by Eskom chair Valli Moosa, who reiterated a commitment originally made at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 that South Africa would reduce the percentage of coal in its energy mix by 10 percent by 2012. The energy producer said it had made climate change "one of its key priorities", and that it would invest in new, less carbon-intensive technologies, including renewable technologies such as wind- and solar-generated power.
"We remain committed to diversifying our energy mix to include renewables, and that forms part of our response to the challenges of global warming," Eskom spokesperson Fani Zulu told IRIN.
Yet coal remains one of South Africa's most abundant and cheapest energy sources, and it would take a massive economic reinvestment to transform energy plants that currently use coal. In early October, van Schalkwyk said South Africa's needs "will, for the foreseeable future, remain heavily dependent on coal."
"Our current power stations have residual life spans of 20 years or more and cannot economically or realistically be replaced before then," he said at the opening session of the UN Parliamentary Forum on Energy Legislation and Sustainable Development in Cape Town.
That's disappointing to climate change activists, because some of the coal-burning power stations are very old, and the older they are, the less efficient. Many activists say Eskom should expand beyond its handful of renewable energy projects, while simultaneously modernising existing power plants to make them less wasteful.
"We'd like to see these stations use the best available technology to create minimal emissions from coal-burning," said Elin Lorimer, secretary for the South African Climate Action Network, based in Johannesburg.
Lorimer observed that it wasn't clear whether the aspirations Eskom had mentioned at the conference marked a meaningful shift in the energy-producer's policy, and that despite talk about renewable energy and energy efficiency, "they're not challenging us to do anything more than business as usual".
Ultimately, Lorimer said, South Africans must take personal responsibility to reduce the unnecessary use of electricity, particularly because making energy more attainable was crucial to the nation's goals for economic development. South Africa has pledged to grow the national economy by six percent a year by 2014.
"We need to start shifting our energy sources in a way that doesn't limit people's access to energy," Lorimer pointed out.
But how? Dr Guy F. Midgley, a scientist with the Global Change Research Group at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, told IRIN that the international community of climate change scientists was now debating alternative technologies, including nuclear power.
Other technologies being considered included refitting South Africa's electricity-producing plants to burn natural gas instead of coal, and "carbon sequestration" - essentially, capturing carbon gases, liquefying them, and storing them underground.
"What's emerging is the need to recognise a much broader menu of solutions, going into the future," Midgley said, particularly as Eskom was the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases in South Africa and the continent. Yet he noted that other nations also bore considerable responsibility to address climate change.
"There's a sense from South Africa's government that there's a moral stance to be taken here, that if we want to say that the developed world must come to the table, we do need to play the game as well," he commented.
"The horrible reality is, no matter how much we do to reduce emissions, what South Africa does is trivial on the world stage, because we only produce between 1 percent and 1.5 percent of all the emissions in the world," Midgley added. "This problem needs a multilateral global solution; it is a problem of the global commons on an epic scale."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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