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South Africa’s renewable energy odyssey — a call for leadership beyond the BRICS Summit

South Africa’s renewable energy odyssey — a call for leadership beyond the BRICS Summit
President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) during the XV BRICS Summit at Sandton Convention Centre on 22 August, 2023 in Sandton, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

South Africa lost an opportunity for influence and change at the BRICS Summit. By championing renewable energy and advocating a global renewable target going forward, we can address our energy crisis and the impending climate catastrophe. The challenge is vast, but so is our potential.

South Africa celebrated its hosting of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Johannesburg last month. This assembly serves as a robust alternative to the G7 club, highlighting the rising influence of economies that are shaping the future.

As South Africa holds its place within the BRICS alliance, it faces a dual challenge: proving its credibility as a valuable partner while addressing the pressing issues of energy access and climate change. The weak energy outcomes of the BRICS Summit on these issues reflect a troubling trend in South Africa’s engagement in energy more broadly.

Just before the BRICS Summit, South Africa made headlines for the wrong reasons, joining a small group of nations at the G20 energy and environment ministerial meetings obstructing an agreement to phase out fossil fuels and impeding the establishment of a renewable energy target.

This stance aligned us with oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Russia; the latter led by an internationally wanted leader facing criminal charges for his actions in Ukraine.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Expansion of BRICS has serious negative implications for Africa’s climate goals

Fossil fuel dead end

Beyond the political recklessness, this move was a betrayal of not just our global responsibilities but also the aspirations of African people. Scientists warn that our chance to avert the gravest climate consequences depends on shedding fossil fuels and accelerating renewable energy adoption.

Economists emphasise that to bridge energy gaps in Africa and beyond, massive investments in renewable energy are imperative. 

The clear, ongoing support for fossil fuels in the BRICS Summit Declaration is further proof of South Africa’s reluctance to lead a just energy transition. If, as some argue, South Africa’s BRICS membership is meant to represent the African continent, our responsibility expands exponentially.

While electricity gaps persist within our nation, the stark reality across Africa is even graver — nearly 600 million people lack access to electricity, as per the International Energy Agency. This stems from a history steeped in colonialism, enduring debts, and unjust market constraints that still favour fossil fuels, handicapping the continent’s growth. Promoted as development, the fossil fuel industry’s endeavours in Africa often lead to lower growth rates compared to non-fossil fuel exporting nations.

Yet, renewable energy is the beacon of a brighter future, promising prosperity for African nations. However, significant roadblocks remain, as highlighted in a recent report by 350Africa.org.

The financial hurdle looms large, especially outside of China, with low growth rates and minimal investment in renewable energy finance.

Green commitment/investment lacking

Private sector investment in green energy accounts for a mere 14% in emerging and developing economies, compared to a solid 81% in high-income countries. Structural barriers, like higher interest rates, obstruct financing in countries without major currencies, hindering renewable energy growth in the Global South.

Amid this, grants and low-cost debt finance made up only a fraction of renewable finance in 2021. Development finance institutions contributed less than 3% to renewable energy investments in 2020. To dismantle these barriers, a global renewable energy target is indispensable, forming the bedrock for overcoming financial obstacles and delivering clean energy access to South Africa and the entire African continent.

The potential of renewable energy isn’t lost on South Africa. Initiatives like Eskom’s containerised microgrids and the recently released Renewable Energy Master Plan demonstrate this. A Just Energy Transition Partnership, backed by global resources, has been formed to steer us toward a decarbonised future. But these strides are dwarfed by our contradictory stance at the international level.

Our blocking of a global renewable energy target echoes discordantly with these domestic efforts, undermining the struggles of those without electricity and the victims of climate change’s wrath. As the energy and electricity ministers advocate for more fossil fuels, and this is reflected in our global partnerships like BRICS, our commitment to renewable energy grows more perplexing. 

South Africa, with its abundant solar and wind resources, has all it takes for a just transition to renewable energy. Our rooftop solar successes and nascent energy transition initiatives are a testament to this potential.

With the BRICS Summit now behind us, we possess the ability to drive a collective shift toward renewable energy adoption, not only for South Africa but for BRICS nations and the world at large. The challenges are monumental, as we strive to install at least 1.5 Terawatts of renewable energy annually from 2030 onwards in line with the Paris Agreement.

A global renewable energy target isn’t just symbolic; it’s the lighthouse guiding our transition. It’s a roadmap for governments, driving planning, investments, and grid connections. This, paired with energy efficiency measures, is our ultimate weapon against climate change, boosting economies, improving energy access, and dismantling financial barriers. It’s the catalyst for the global green Marshall Plan to empower hundreds of millions with clean energy access.

Yet, a target alone won’t suffice. We need a plan that enforces justice over profit, deploying renewables while ensuring a fair transition for all. This is the essence of deep decarbonisation, an equitable transition, and limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

South Africa lost an opportunity for influence and change at the BRICS Summit. By championing renewable energy and advocating a global renewable target going forward, we can address our energy crisis and the impending climate catastrophe. The challenge is vast, but so is our potential.

As our government formulates strategies, we have a chance to rebrand ourselves on the global stage, uniting for a future powered by renewables. It’s time to step out of our own way and lead the way toward a greener, brighter tomorrow. DM

Glen Tyler-Davies is South African Team Leader at 350Africa.org

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