How do you instantly create 10 ghost towns? Stop using coal, Gwede Mantashe warns
The energy minister and others have urged an Afrocentric energy transition that is not dictated to by developed countries. Addressing an energy summit, he also had a dire warning about ghost towns in Mpumalanga.
If South Africa were to stop mining, trucking, shipping and burning coal, 10 ghost towns would be created “immediately” in the coal belt province of Mpumalanga, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe claimed during the ministerial symposium at the African Oil Week and Green Energy Africa conference on Monday.
Addressing about 30 African energy ministers, numerous fossil fuel company executives and renewable energy businesspeople from across the continent and beyond, he spoke about the “just energy transition” and the challenges it poses for the continent. He also cautioned against African countries being dictated to by developed countries.
His sentiments were largely shared by the panellists and delegates at the symposium, including Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, commissioner for infrastructure and energy at the African Union Commission, who took issue with wording. She preferred “the term access rather than transition… Africa still has an energy access problem.”
Looking ahead to the United Nations climate negotiations in Egypt in November, Abou-Zeid said that “we want to make that COP work for us… for the continent… so we need to go there with our African perspective.”
She reiterated that as Africa seeks to secure an energy supply for its growing population, it should do so while “not ignoring any energy source”. While mindful of the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and internationally agreed climate policy commitments, “Africa cannot be bound to dates more applicable to other parts of the world”, she said, in an apparent reference to net-zero plans.
“Africa is [responsible for] 3% of the world’s emissions… when all of Africa is connected our emissions will still stand at only 4%… current discussion around the world does not apply to Africa because we do not speak from the same starting place… whether it’s equity, whether it’s access… we want to ensure our resources work for us and not blindly following someone else’s agenda,” said Abou-Zeid.
“That being said, Africa has never been a climate denier; we have been the hardest hit by climate impacts.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Africa faces an uphill battle against western emissions to combat climate change”
Mantashe urged the consolidation of a unified African position in its engagements with developed countries as the continent charts its energy future and developmental pathway.
“When we are individuals, we are weaker. When the EU (European Union) talks to us, they talk to us as the EU… when they talk to us they engage us as individuals. I want you to note that,” he said.
“Africa is the least developed part of the world but has the most potential to develop. If you talk about the green economy you will achieve that from things that are planted or mined and all those things are in this continent. We must be very innovative, they must be beneficiated here… if we do it, we are going to be a better continent.”
It’s all in the ‘details’
Mantashe pointed out that the Presidential Climate Commission’s technical report on the just transition explains that a “just transition” refers to “the management of a transition to a low-carbon society in a balanced and just manner, housed within a given socioeconomic context”.
He said there was unanimity on the need to move towards lower carbon emissions.
“That debate is settled. The real issue is in the detail of that transition. If it [the transition] is just, justice must be seen to be done… it must be people-centred… three; it must be community-focused because there will be communities affected by that transition.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Getting buy-in from the people most at risk in SA’s just transition to low-carbon energy – the workers”
Mantashe stressed that South Africa in general and Mpumalanga in particular were highly dependent on coal. In the “coal belt” there were “10 towns of contiguous coal mining” and “there will be 10 ghost towns” overnight should all coal-related activity cease.
Without skipping a beat, he listed them: Belfast, Carolina, Delmas, Ermelo, Hendrina, Kriel, Leandra, Middleburg, Ogies and Witbank.
Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (Tips) have, in their coal value chain report, noted that “the value chain as a whole employed around 200,000 formal workers and was the main source of livelihoods in eMalahleni [Witbank], Steve Tshwete [Middelburg], Govan Mbeki [Secunda] and Msukaligwa [Ermelo]”.
“If you just switch off that area, [they] will be dead immediately… how best do we manage that transition… we must move from high carbon emission to low carbon emission… everyone accepts that… not one dissenting view… the devil is in the detail of the transition and I imagine that goes for the whole continent,” said Mantashe.
“When the EU accepts that gas and nuclear are part of the green transition, the tone changes… it is important for us to appreciate the importance of the AU and consolidate the views,” he said.
His sentiments were largely echoed by Uganda’s energy and mineral development minister, Ruth Nankabirwa.
“African resources are for Africa’s economic development. When it comes to the new agenda of climate change, those who have been emitting for decades just want the young countries that have just discovered petroleum, [they] don’t want them to do what they did even though what they did made them rich. So, whether you make all the necessary laws, the truth is Africa must pay for the deeds of those who discovered oil long ago.”
Nankabirwa continued that “to tell us we cannot develop [fossil fuel resources] is an insult to Africa. You are telling us to stay poor in Africa. Africa wants to grow, we want to consider all the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] at once. Ending poverty is critical, just as critical as climate change. You cannot regulate a poor person. A person who is using charcoal is poor and a company who is going back to using coal… who is better?”
Africa Oil Week ambassador Dr Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu, a former minister of state petroleum resources and former group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, shared similar views.
“There isn’t a just transition. ‘Just’ is a shortened form of justice… the global players will transition in their own interest… economics is a selfish approach… we need to begin to look at this verbiage and look a whole lot more to what I may call an Afrocentric energy transition. Every global group must sit down and think, ‘what really suits me’, and Africa must begin to look at its own interest and say, ‘how do we play’… we are not being fair to ourselves.
“We must not pace ourselves according to emotion. Our transition must be driven by Afrocentrism — by what is in the best interests of Africa’s people.”
Fossil fuel a ‘poor solution’
Tracey Davies, executive director of Just Share, said that while it was true that Africa had contributed the least to climate change, the solution did not lie in developing infrastructure to increase that contribution.
“Whilst it is, of course, true that least-developed countries have contributed least to global emissions, and are entitled to financial support from developed countries to transition, renewable energy is now the cheapest form of energy, and it is hard to understand why anyone would advocate for Africa’s future development to be reliant on fossil fuels, which are now the most expensive method of power generation, especially given how rich Africa’s renewable resources are.
“You’ll note that all of those who are advocates of this view are politicians and oil and gas industry representatives, or their advisers — in other words, those with a vested interest in the development of oil and gas, not those with an interest in the wellbeing of ordinary people living in Africa.”
Davies said “there is a plethora of expert reports that confirm that rapid and extensive scaling up of renewable energy generation is the most cost-optimal energy pathway for the continent and presents significant economic benefits and opportunities. Coal, oil and gas are a poor solution for energy access: of the 800 million people worldwide who lack electricity, 85% live in rural areas where distributed renewable energy can provide electrification much more quickly and much more cheaply than fossil fuels.
“Furthermore, from an emissions point of view, South Africa is not in the same category as the rest of Africa. It is unrealistic to expect the rest of the world to treat us as a developing nation in terms of emissions when we have one of the most carbon-intensive economies on Earth.
“For over a century, South Africa has had unlimited access to coal, but has still failed to generate prosperity for the vast majority of the population. The past and present offer no templates for the future — tackling our systemic inequality, unemployment and poverty demands radical changes in the structure of our economy.” OBP/DM