Our Burning Planet


President could have gone further in addressing climate crisis, say environmentalists

President could have gone further in addressing climate crisis, say environmentalists
From left: Unsplash | Wind turbines at the Gouda wind power facility. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Unsplash | Wind turbines at the Umoya Energy wind farm in Hopefield. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Cyril Ramaphosa is optimistic about South Africa’s clean energy future and he made no mention of any new coal plans in his State of the Nation Address. However, environmentalists expressed concern at the low priority he seems to be giving to the climate crisis.

‘The path we choose now will determine the course for future generations,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his State of the Nation Address at the Cape Town City Hall on Thursday.  

The words echoed what much of the environmental movement has been reiterating over the past few years. While Ramaphosa was referring to strengthening democracy, those utterances can be perfectly placed in the context of the environmental crisis to which the country is so vulnerable.  

South Africa’s dependence on coal has made it the biggest emitter in Africa. Although the president spoke about the alternative energy sources to be added to the national grid, he did not mention any new developments. 

Renewable energy and no new coal 

“He made no mention of proposed new coal power, despite the fact that it is provided for in the IRP [Integrated Resource Plan] and ministerial determination,” Nicole Loser, head of the Pollution and Climate Change at the Centre for Environmental Rights, told Daily Maverick. “He also made no mention of new nuclear capacity.” 

Instead, the president spoke of new generation projects that include increasing energy from the renewable energy programme, adding 500MW from Bid Window 4, 2,600MW from Bid Window 5, with 800MW from those projects ready to proceed, while 2,600MW from Bid Window 6 will also soon be opened.  

In addition to renewable energy being added to the grid, 3,000MW of gas power is to be included, with 500MW from battery storage. 

“Renewable energy production will make electricity cheaper and more dependable and will allow our industries to remain globally competitive. Investments in electric vehicles and hydrogen will equip South Africa to meet the global clean energy future,” Ramaphosa said, as he mentioned South Africa had a unique opportunity in green hydrogen, given renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy resources, technology and expertise. 

Bongiwe Matsoha, policy adviser at Earthlife Africa, told Daily Maverick that while it was encouraging to hear of developments on electrical vehicles and green hydrogen, a lack of clarity on targets of increased renewable energy was concerning. 

The ambition and optimism around alternative energy without mention of new coal projects is contrary to the support Minister of Minerals Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe has given to coal and nuclear, which led to him being dubbed a “coal fundamentalist”. Though Mantashe has championed gas as an alternative, environmentalists are opposed to South Africa using it, citing concerns over its environmental impact in the long run.  

“A revised IRP would also reveal that nuclear and gas are not least-cost options for power generation. Actually, gas prices have risen in the last couple of years, and therefore, the inputs for IRP 2019 modelling are now outdated,” Matsoha said.  

Ramaphosa endorsed gas as an appropriate alternative to coal, stating its “huge potential for job creation and broader economic development”. However, Loser said the president’s mention of gas was “concerning” and was a stark contrast to the comments made about the climate crisis and the need to reduce emissions. She added that it was interesting that Karpowership had not been mentioned in connection with emergency energy procurement.  

“We will ensure that this is done in strict accordance with the environmental and other laws of our country,” Ramaphosa said, speaking of the use of gas, which has about half of the environmental impact of coal. “And where there are differences, we [will] work together to resolve [the differences] in the interest of our country and its people.”  

Coal is the single biggest contributor to the climate crisis, contributing almost half of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounting for more than 70% of total greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation. A shift from coal, which was mentioned for the first time in the final draft of the United Nations climate negotiations COP26, could play a big role in reducing global emissions and usher South Africa into its just transition from coal.  

Just transition funding and task team 

climate crisis sona

(Photo: Unsplash / Alexander Tsang)

During the climate negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, South Africa had what Ramaphosa called a “watershed” moment. The European Union, Germany, France, the UK and the US partnered with South Africa through a R131-billion mixed funding pledge to fund the country’s just transition. 

“This first-of-its-kind partnership will involve repurposing and repowering some of the coal plants that are reaching the end of their lives, and creating new livelihoods for workers and communities most impacted by this change,” the president said in his Sona speech.  

To ensure that South Africa reaps the ultimate benefits of the partnership, Ramaphosa announced that Daniel Mminele, former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank and former Absa CEO, had been appointed head of the Presidential Climate Finance Task Team to lead the mobilisation of funds for the just transition.  

“Properly managed, the energy transition will benefit all,” Ramaphosa said, adding that investment in green hydrogen and electric vehicles would equip South Africa to meet a clean global future. 

Matsoha said, “It is good that the president has appointed the head of the Presidential Climate Finance Task Team and hopefully we will have more transparency in terms of the allocation of funds, as well as monitoring and reporting on spending.” 

She said, though, that with the country’s history of corruption and rent-seeking, her organisation would be following the development closely.  

Ramaphosa’s speech made no mention of the climate crisis as an emergency, despite the crisis disproportionately affecting southern Africa, with millions of lives and livelihoods threatened by the changing climate. Matsoha referred to the president’s acknowledgement of the crisis as “somewhat underwhelming”. 

Farming and water reform 

The industrialisation of the hemp and cannabis sector, Ramaphosa announced, was expected to create more than 130,000 jobs. The sector needs particular climate conditions to thrive, even under the “innovative forms” in which the president said the farmers would bring the “age-old” herb on to the market. 

Water security is not only a resource vital to farming, but also one heavily threatened by the climate crisis. Ramaphosa said that the institutional reforms to ensure future water security were being prioritised through the revision of water boards, including the establishment of the National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency, which will be open for public comment in March.  

Climate Change Bill 

While no mention of new coal is a game changer, environmentalists raised concerns that the Climate Change Bill had not been mentioned. The bill proposes to ensure that South Africa has a legal framework to abide by in meeting its climate action and environmental goals and requirements.  

“More concerning, I didn’t hear him mention the Climate Bill… we’ve been waiting for climate legislation for a number of years now. If the government is really serious about addressing the climate emergency, then why is it not prioritising much-needed climate legislation?” Loser said. DM/OBP


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Absa OBP

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  • Alex Lenferna says:

    T’hanks for this piece. However, it seems problematic for an environmental reporter to uncritically echo the gas industry’s claims that it is half as polluting as coal. That’s only if you are thinking about carbon emissions when gas is burnt at the plant, which is just one small part of the story. However, if you look at the lifecycle impacts of gas, it can be as harmful as coal. For example, methane leakage from fracking and transport of gas, can give it warming impacts as harmful if not more than coal, depending on leakage levels. Lots of research has been done on this. Additionally, fracking for gas requires obscene amounts of water, millions of gallons for each well. That water gets laced with toxic chemicals, which can leach into nearby water tables contaminating water supplies. Cracking open the earth using toxic water at high pressure also increases the risk of earthquake. In addition, harmful ozone and carcinogenic benzene are released into the air during extraction. Then, when we finally burn that gas, it produces not only planet warming carbon dioxide, nut also air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, pollutants which can trigger respiratory problems and aggravate asthma and cardiovascular disease. For example, a recent Australian study showed that the health impact of having a gas cooktop in your home is roughly equivalent to having a cigarette smoker puffing away in the corner, & accounts for about 12% of childhood asthma cases.

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