Why are we being imitated?

Feature story - 1 September, 2002
They seemed innocent enough. Just little business-card sized pamphlets, small enough to be slipped into the wallet of any delegate, asking one simple question at the preparatory meetings for the Earth Summit in Bali: 'Why are you here?' We answered our own question with a four-point checklist of action needed to save our world.

Greenfreeze and Solar Chill on display at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, Setpember 2002.

Here in Johannesburg, a 'copy-cat' pamphlet has appeared. What did the cover say? Why, it was titled 'Why is the European Union here?' It answered its own question with a ten-point checklist of fluffy green advertising slogans. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, why was the European Union imitating Greenpeace?

Another example. We have been pushing for the governments of the world to adopt new renewable energy like wind, solar, small-scale hydro and modern biomass. We demanded last year that clean, renewable energy be provided to the two billion of the world's poorest people who currently live off the energy grid.

And sure enough, somebody else decided to copy our message. In their latest advertising, Shell Oil, a major producer of polluting fossil fuels, notes two billion of the planet's poorest people have no energy, and "we need to do more than just talk about it."

You know, we don't mind being imitated. But we'd really prefer that Shell and the European Union imitate our actions, not our words.

We're proving the viability of small-scale renewable energy by investing in prototypes that work, using today's technology.

We're demonstrating that a future based on renewable energy is environmentally practical and economically viable.

We're sending signals to government that we can address poverty AND global warming with the same solutions.

We're challenging governments and industries to drive the investment necessary to make these technologies much cheaper and much more widely available, through the kind of binding targets that create an even playing field for market forces.

What's the European Union doing? At the moment, it appears that under the spineless leadership of Denmark, they are about to sell out on their commitment to firm renewable targets for the world's energy mix, bowing to pressure from the United States and corporate puppeteers like Exxon.

What's Shell doing? Continuing to expand its capacity to produce and sell the very fossil fuels that are choking Asia under a brown haze and slowly cooking our planet.

What are we doing? At the exhibition space formerly set aside to showcase business interests and government ventures here in Johannesburg, we secured a place to showcase initiatives such as the SolarChill project.

The SolarChill is a refrigerator that stores the sun's energy in ice, and can be used to keep vaccines and food cool in places where no electricity is now available. We're also showcasing the solar Greenfreeze refrigerator, which uses no climate-killing chemicals and can be powered by wind, hydropower, biogas or grid energy.

The true significance of the SolarChill is related to vaccines. The availability of vaccine refrigerators in developing countries is vital for maintaining the shelf life of vaccines and some medicines, such as the liquid form of antibiotics. Many people live off the grid or with unstable energy, and keeping medicines cold can be all but impossible.

Vaccine refrigerators that can be powered by a number of energy sources can alleviate the problem of non-existing or insufficient electrical supply, and can also be of great benefit under emergency circumstances, such as natural disasters or war conditions.

Janos Maté has been showing off a working SolarChill prototype to visitors to the Global Forum for the past week. In his view, the Summit should be announcing investment projects to make technology like this available to as many rural villages as possible.

"I've had many people ask where they could buy a SolarChill, and it's a shame that this is the only working model. One woman told me that she lives in a small village here in South Africa, and that her fridge is kerosene-powered. The kerosene costs a dollar a day, it needs to refilled each night, and it spits out black smoke."

What our corporate and government imitators forget is that our real messages are actions, not words. They say clearly that clean solutions to real everyday situations are possible.

At Ubuntu village we have a portable container that acts as a shopfront. It showcases four small businesses, all run on renewable energy. Jan Pronk, the Special Envoy to the Earth Summit, opened the Energy Store by enjoying a freshly squeezed juice from an electric juicer, before logging onto the internet using a solar powered computer to sign an online petition, and then giving a colleague a solar-powered haircut. The petition calls for the massive uptake of renewable energy by the industrialised nations, and access to clean renewable energy for two billion of the world's poorest people.

The working demonstration at Ubuntu village is a call to the world's governments to adopt a target of 10 percent of new renewable energy by 2010. We have said it on our pamphlets, hung it from banners, painted it on hot air balloons and developed prototypes that WORK. When will governments and multinationals stop talking the talk, and start walking the walk?

Energy is the lifeblood of modern society. We are at a crossroads due to the global impact of current polluting energy supplies such as oil, coal, gas and nuclear power. A clean energy future is now urgently needed. Renewable energy is reliable, inexhaustible power generated by natural processes such as wind, solar, biomass and small-scale hydro.

The total cost of getting renewable energy to the world's poorest two billion people is estimated to be less than half of the US$500+ billion that is likely to be invested over the next decade in fossil fuel power stations and infrastructure in poorer countries.

For just US$1.4 billion, clean renewable energy could be supplied to one million schools and health care centres, serving some 600 million people.

In a meeting that has been criticised for its obsession with trade, subsidies and protecting the rights of businesses, the lack of talk about environmental protection, sustainability or poverty alleviation is disheartening. But the lack of action is far worse. We'd love to live in a world where governments and multinationals behaved more like Greenpeace. But they need to put their money where their mouth is.