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December 01, 2011

The Sierra Club in Durban: Day Four

Coal Funeral at Speakers Corner, Durban, South Africa

Today was a whirlwind day for the Sierra Club delegation in Durban! We held not one, but two funerals for coal to demonstrate that coal is no longer cheap or reliable anywhere in the world. In the U.S. we have turned away from coal, in large part because the Sierra Club and our allies have stopped virtually all of the proposed coal-fired power plants proposed by the Bush Administration. We have come to Durban to ally with other civil society groups around the world in our campaign to confront the dominance of the coal and oil industries.

Our first funeral was at the Speakers Corner, the public space designated for protest, open to both credentialed attendees and the public who wants to engage the COP. We showed our solidarity with activists from around the world who gathered to protest World Bank financing for fossil fuels immediately after. Our black coffin for coal with its four pallbearers were followed by a grieving widow, who looked suspiciously like our six-foot-plus board member Jim Dougherty. Bringing up the rear was the clean-energy technology of the future, windmills and solar panels, and our student delegation, leading coal and climate chants. We had up to three interviews going on at once, led by our media mavens, Cesia Kearns and SSC delegate Heather Hatzenbuhler.

IMG_2636 Coal Funeral inside COP

We began the slow adventure to get the materials into the COP itself. Despite getting previous approval, we had numerous stops and starts with security personnel. We re-assembled to do a smaller procession in the fifteen-by-nine-foot section the Secretariat allotted us inside the conference. There, in full view of the media section and negotiation building yards away, we reminded negotiators and the world of the devastating effect coal has on both the climate and on human health.

A huge congratulation goes out to the entire Sierra Club delegation –- thank you!

But we weren't just burying coal today. We also were working to build a clean-energy future to the 1.3 billion people without access to electricity. Carl Pope co-chaired an Energy Access Discussion with Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. They countered the idea that coal is necessary by showing that coal is incapable of ever electrifying the entire world.

Carl Pope

There are two fallacies that people too often believe: that to electrify the rural poor we must build out the grid, and that renewable electricity and solar are too expensive and must be subsidized. Universal access to the grid is simply economically impossible, which even the International Energy Agency and the Government of India now admit. Meanwhile, people without energy access can spend $8 per kilowatt hour on kerosene, far more than the price of renewable energy. If we embrace a "finance as you go model" for renewables, and particularly solar, we can do what coal never will: help us achieve universal energy access.

The presentations were followed by a lively panel with Mary Robinson, Carl Pope, and George Sibotshiwe from EcoNet Wireless, which is working to deliver distributed renewable power that can power homes (and cell phones) paid for through mobile networks. The following discussion incorporated questions and input from Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, Carbon War Room CEO Jigar Shah, Congress of South African Trade Unions and ANC leader Jay Naidoo, environmentalists, and private sector representatives. It truly was a meeting of the minds that bridged diverse groups, and could potentially change the world.

-- article and image by Nicole Ghio

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