South Africa

Our Burning Planet OP-ED

The IRP: Members of the parliamentary energy committee ignoring the impact of climate change

The IRP: Members of the parliamentary energy committee ignoring the impact of climate change
Campaigners in Cape Town march as part of the 'Global Climate March' to demand that global leaders take urgent action to tackle climate change on November 29, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Nardus Engelbrecht)

We need an Integrated Resource Plan that is to the benefit of our people and our environment. Presently the energy committee that oversees the plan is not prioritising climate change and seems to align itself with the views of the coal and nuclear industries.

Electricity prices impact on everybody. Climate change and environmental degradation impacts on everybody. These impacts will not be experienced equally, but they are felt by all citizens to some extent. This is why decision makers in the energy sector must take action on climate change, they must prioritise environmental concerns and they must ensure the least-cost production of electricity within these bounds. This would constitute acting in the public interest.

So it is deeply concerning when members of the Portfolio Committee on Energy promote environmentally damaging practices, promote technologies that will increase the cost of electricity and completely ignore climate change. Compounding this concern is that it happened in a context where they were not meant to be pushing their views in the first place.

They were meant to be assessing if a document summarising public comments was a fair reflection, but it became a platform that seemingly pushed personal agendas. This has left a lot of questions about whether they are indeed acting in the public interest, despite their claims that this is what they are doing.

Summary report on public views on electricity planning

Let us take a step back to explain the context.

The Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) is the national blueprint for electricity infrastructure planning into the future. The IRP is produced by the Department of Energy. Now, what the government decides to build to produce electricity has a direct effect on both the tariff the consumer will pay for power, as well as the environmental and climate change impacts during production. The current version of the IRP is from 2010, and is long overdue for an update. The IRP 2013 was never promulgated, and the draft IRP 2018 is essentially a continuation of the IRP 2016 because the process has been so protracted.

As with other iterations of the IRP, there were public hearings, but this year they were conducted via the portfolio committee rather than the department. After five days of hearings and a one day round table, the committee had a document produced that was meant to be a summary of key issues raised by the public (either in their written submissions or at the hearings). This very important report will then go to the department and feed into the finalisation of the IRP 2018. After the report was tabled on 6 November, the MPs were meant to submit written comments on it before the discussion a week later, but none did.

So on 13 November, I joined a few other observers that crammed into the tiny room V226 in the Old Assembly of Parliament, to listen to the discussion on the report. Ostensibly, the objective was to assess if this report is a fair and balanced reflection of what the public had to say about the energy future they want in our country. What we got was something else.

Pushing of agendas at the public expense

Nuclear was a hot topic at the hearings, and makes for a good example as to the problematic handling of the report by the MPs. Environmental organisations, academics, faith institutions and community groups were vocal against further nuclear investment. There were a number of reasons cited, but opinions aside, the results of all credible modelling1 shows that nuclear is not part of a least-cost electricity plan for South Africa.

On the other hand, nuclear industry representatives and entities associated with nuclear lobbyists were pro-nuclear. This is understandable as they would receive direct financial gain should there be future investment in nuclear, whether it was in the best interests of the country or not. Thus the report should note both standpoints. The source of the standpoints should be listed so that the department can assess the bias, and identify if there are vested interests or opportunities for direct financial gain, when evaluating these public comments.

The first to speak was an ANC member, Tandi Mahambehlala. She dived straight into the nuclear section claiming that in her view the majority of stakeholders said “nuclear now or never” and that “nuclear must be in the energy mix”. If this wording was not strong enough she then went on to say that “for the country to survive we need nuclear as baseload”. To her credit, she was one of the few MPs that did actually attend the hearings, but as such she should give a fair reflection of what was said, if she is acting in the public interest.

Furthermore, the majority of comments in support of nuclear came from organisations connected to the industry itself. Several MPs supported Mahambehlala’s views and none talked about the stakeholders that objected to nuclear. The MP from the IFP said that “nuclear is efficient and reliable” and the deputy minister of energy said that “we are doing very well in terms of leading with nuclear”.

The fact that the deputy minister was even having inputs was curious in itself. If the report from the committee will go to the department, then should a member of the department be influencing what goes into the report? This raises questions about the separation of powers. Is this a case of a member of the executive arm of government exerting undue political interference? Members of the IRP drafting team from department were also at the back of the room listening, but like us, they were not having an input.

In terms of coal, MPs made statements such as “coal is our prestige”, “coal will never be stopped in this county” and “it will go on forever”. Again, having a viewpoint is one thing, but this process was meant to be about whether a report was an accurate reflection of what the public said, and there was very strong opposition to new coal at the hearings from lawyers, academics, environmental groups and community members.

Climate change ignored

With each passing year the reality and implications of climate change become more alarming, and the need for action becomes more urgent. The recent “Global Warming of 1.5°C” report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and South Africa’s own Third National Communication Report, both reinforce the dire consequences of inaction.

Added to this, the energy sector is by far the highest emitter of greenhouse gases in South Africa, and so climate change is incredibly relevant to the energy committee. Yet climate change was not addressed at all by MPs during the report review session. How is this possible, especially when so many public submissions highlighted climate change issues?

Whose interests would it serve to ignore such an important issue in a position where you could effect positive change? Surely if the MPs were acting in the public interest, they would not completely ignore climate change?

Coal and nuclear bias

The session on 13 November concluded on the note that further deliberation was required. So again, a few of us returned on 27 November for the last instalment. By this stage the report had been adjusted and the members only looked at the new “Findings and Observations” and the “Recommendations” sections. Here we found some serious red flags that MPs did not contest, and the report was adopted.

The adopted report states:

The call that the IRP remove the 1000MW of new coal, for financial and environmental reasons, and also remove Kusile Units 5 and 6 cannot be supported.” Kusile is one of two new coal-fired power stations Eskom is still building, but economic analysis has shown it is better not to complete the project. The reason cited to keep these coal projects is “the positive impact on job creation”. However, if the decision makers were really acting in the best interests of all South Africans, as they claim to do, they should take the path that is best for the economy, the environment and also jobs.

These ideas are not mutually exclusive, and via a process of a Just Energy Transition, jobs can be created outside the coal sector. This is possible, but so far the government has not prioritised a Just Energy Transition. Consequently we have this situation where the energy committee advises that we continue to invest in a technology that damages people’s health, pollutes our air and water resources, contributes to climate change and costs the country (and tax payer) more money. This is not acceptable when there are better options, as was pointed out at length at the public hearings.

Then, on nuclear, the report findings claim that “there is no persuasive argument to counter the proposition that nuclear technology remains the cleanest, safest and in long term the cheapest technology”. This is quite absurd. Earlier in the report it notes that:

Stakeholders were of the view that even beyond 2030, nuclear should not be considered in the energy mix because it is expensive, among other things.” Furthermore, the committee was provided with a study by Professor Steve Thomas, an independent international expert on nuclear economics. His work “The role of nuclear power in South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan” specifically looked at the options available to South Africa and analysed the costs in detail. His conclusion was:

In spite of the use of grossly unrealistically low nuclear construction cost estimates, none of the versions of the IRP published have found a case for inclusion of new nuclear plants. Nuclear has been forced into the plan by “ministerial determinations’.” Curiously, Thomas’s report is even referenced in the committee report and yet their finding on nuclear is in complete opposition. What is going on here?

Public interest must be the priority

The most telling line in the adopted report is probably this recommendation:

That the IRP should make it explicit that both coal and nuclear will remain important elements of SA’s energy mix.” While this could be in reference to our existing power stations, it seems to keep the door open to future investments in these areas. Would that really be in the best interests of all South Africans, or is this to pander to the influences of the coal and nuclear lobby?

In short, we need an IRP that is to the benefit of our people and our environment. Presently the energy committee that oversees the IRP is not prioritising climate change and seems to align itself with the views of the coal and nuclear industries.

We live in a time where the impacts of climate change are kicking in and we must make a rapid shift to an affordable, sustainable and low-carbon energy sector in South Africa. In this context, the big question is whether these decision makers and MPs are actually acting in the public interest. DM

Richard Halsey works on the policy team of Project 90 at 2030.

1For example, the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.


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