Opinionista Richard Worthington 22 August 2019

Our Burning Planet: Refusing decisions on emissions strategy is equivalent to denial

South Africa’s prospects as an investment destination, particularly for ‘climate finance’, are on the line, as is the credibility of our positioning (since the mid-Nineties) as a responsible actor in global governance.

A decade ago, the government convened a national conference under the banner: “Climate Action Now!”

The overriding message of government’s latest effort to elaborate on our national mitigation strategy, a “draft for internal comment”, is essentially: we need another three to five years to unpack our choices and make up our minds. This seems an honest reflection of political will within government regarding decisive action to embrace our low-carbon development opportunities, so this document simply highlights our problem.

Somehow we have to generate the political will within this government to do the right thing: to plan immediately for our greenhouse gas (carbon) emissions to decline. We have all the information and analysis needed to be decisive on some core elements of any development pathway consistent with the global emissions imperative: to become carbon neutral around mid-century.

Prospects for realising our largest mitigation opportunity, that will be central to any credible sustainable development strategy, are under contestation at Nedlac, by way of the Integrated Resource Planning process for electricity supply (IRP). While electricity accounts for 42% of total national emissions, it offers well over half of our near-term mitigation potential, along with net savings for the electricity supply system and users, but it requires forgoing anticipated earnings for the energy incumbency (principally fossil fuel investors – coal is still big in the Minerals Council).

There have long been calls for an industrialisation programme for renewable energy (RE) technologies and these days it has no downside, yet politically it is a hot potato. We have a minister who will not allow discussion of concerted investment in RE development without similar treatment of fossil fuel deposits, in charge of the department that also ignores the opportunity to displace imported fossil liquids with renewable energy, as has been clearly laid out by the CSIR, where synfuel technology is being piloted.

The draft document mentioned is “South Africa’s Low Emissions Development Strategy to 2050”, which is due to be tabled at the United Nations climate negotiations ahead of the 2020 Conference of Parties. The reason the Department of Environment and experts working on the document conclude that several more years are needed to get decisive is that they may only include in the strategy what has already been approved through policy processes AND we do not have Integrated Energy Planning, as required by the Energy Act of 2008.

There is certainly more we can and must demand of the lead agent, but if strategic choices are to be made to enable a just transition to a low-carbon economy, we will have to look elsewhere. The National Development Plan provides a mandate and the Commission has conducted widespread stakeholder and community consultations exploring pathways for a Just Transition, but will this get the president’s attention?

One of several shortcomings of the IRP is the presupposition that the share of electricity in total end use energy will remain at about 30% to 2050. Robust Integrated Energy Planning would indicate that this will grow, if allowed to. Within an energy system consistent with the global emissions objective, the share of electricity at end use should at least double, while the use of liquid fuels (and internal combustion engines) declines steeply.

Certainly, coal has a future in South Africa and just as certainly it is far shorter than the energy incumbency and most investment funds anticipate. It is unfortunate for coal industry workers that their fortunes are so strongly linked to a corporation that is unable to break even burning their product, but this is our current reality. Resisting cheaper supply alternatives is in direct conflict with the developmental imperative to make more electricity available to more South Africans – and not exclusively according to ability to pay.

A responsible time frame for phasing out coal-fired power generation is urgently required because there are already social impacts of ad hoc closures and managing the fallout requires clear and detailed plans. Just as urgently we need to provide public finance for decentralised and community-based development of utility-scale wind and solar power projects, plus a programme for solar PV systems to achieve universal access to electricity.

Ongoing work that will enrich planning for a just transition includes the drafting of Sectoral Jobs Resilience Plans, due later this year. Analysing key value chains, they will propose specific interventions for the communities and workers identified as most vulnerable; in the case of coal this would be much assisted by a reliable Eskom plant decommissioning schedule.

One does not need to buy into a dehumanising “Fourth Industrial Revolution” narrative to embrace the opportunities that smart grid technologies offer for giving effect to energy democracy. A rapid decline in the cost of battery storage is also improving prospects for local social ownership within the electricity system, including mini-grids for remote areas.

There is no need for any privatisation of state assets or service provision for the distribution network to be made accessible to all, rather than under control of a monopoly supplier. With the advent of pay-as-you-use domestic solar-PV systems, at rates that will soon be below the tariffs Eskom needs, South African conditions are increasingly conducive to an electricity system that embraces “prosumers” – households, co-operatives etc that are both producers and consumers, under clear and transparent regulation – provided that the wires are governed as a public and common good.

In the eyes of the international community, in the process of bailing out Eskom we are further massively subsidising coal combustion. Our overall ambition on mitigation (as is formalised in our Nationally Determined Contribution to global action, which we are expected to revise within about a year) remains unchanged for over a decade. It was drafted when Eskom was considered a world-class utility, selling more electricity than today and turning a profit, and is based on the climate science available fifteen years ago.

The head of the United Nations has challenged heads of stateto come to New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020”. South Africa has consistently called for international support to realise our emissions-reduction potential, as well as to enable adaptation to a hotter planet, and is increasingly seeking concessionary finance for “green growth”.

South Africa’s prospects as an investment destination, particularly for “climate finance”, are on the line; as is the credibility of our positioning (since the mid-1990s) as a responsible actor in global governance. There is increased and growing consistency between the decisions needed at the domestic level, strategic choices that will clearly improve public welfare, and the ambitious mitigation objectives required to avert catastrophic global heating.

It is increasingly opportune for South Africa to make a better pledge, moving on from the “peak, plateau and decline” emissions range of existing policy that has become shamefully inadequate. At the UN in September we will see if our Cabinet remains in thrall to short-term vested interests, or will allow the president to promise decisions within a year, consistent with the interests of the majority and the future. DM

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