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Power politics: Gwede Mantashe insists on fossil fuels when solar can be ‘insanely cheap’

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Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

It is hard to explain the South African government’s commitment to fossil fuels, given the country’s problems with drought and the fact that solar power gets cheaper by the day. It is also difficult to fathom what the government’s plans are with regard to a just transition.

Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe dropped a bombshell during his Budget speech in Parliament on 18 May 2021, when he indicated that the just transition was simply not a priority for the government.

The minister told the mini plenary session of the National Assembly that “in an alternative universe, one would immediately eliminate fossil fuel-generated energy such as coal and petroleum. However, this is not our reality; our reality is that we have vast reserves of coal and petroleum resources which we continue to exploit.”

Although he added shortly after that “we are committed to a just transition”, it is clear for all to see that this follow-up is such an oxymoron. The dismissiveness in the first statement is so obvious that it is not that hard to conclude that he is just bloviating in the follow-up, to tick a box maybe. Judging by all the new projects that have recently been approved by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy, it is obvious that South Africa has no immediate plans to urgently decarbonise the country’s power mix.

Let us count the ways. First to the minister’s statement and its consequences for South Africa in the short to medium term. South Africa recently approved eight preferred independent power producer bids within the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producers’ Procurement Programme to start supplying about 2,000 megawatts of electricity to Eskom within 18 months, the majority of which will burn liquefied natural gas to produce power. The biggest winner of the recent independent power producer award round (Turkey’s Karpowership SA) is set to dock its floating powerships off the coasts of Coega, Saldanha and Richards Bay, where they will dump more than 20 million tonnes of CO2 and methane gas over two decades.

These new power producers add to an already massive coal fleet that has placed South Africa top of the emissions list in Africa for decades. In 2015, South Africa submitted its first Nationally Determined Contribution in terms of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement to keep national greenhouse gas emissions within a range from 389 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2-eq) for 2025 and 2050. On 30 March 2021, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries released South Africa’s updated draft Nationally Determined Contribution which confirms that its new target range is going to be in the 398 to 440Mt CO2-eq range – an uptick of 10MT CO2-eq in the short term.

This is consistent with the growth of fossil power plants in the country and, potentially, movement around the gas deposits in the Karoo and off the east coast. Judging by Mantashe’s comments on the need to continue burning the country’s vast reserves of coal, the announcement of a shale gas find in the Karoo probably means… more gas power stations?

It is hard to explain the commitment to coal given the country’s problems with drought. Fossil capitalism is a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, and ipso facto the country’s water challenges. The Northern and Eastern Cape are running out of water. Even in Gauteng, residents of Hammanskraal have been under pressure for months, as they spend long hours queueing for water.

Here is what President Cyril Ramaphosa said about climate change and drought in his letter to the nation on 26 April 2021: “Drought is widely recognised as one of the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. Since South Africa is already a water-scarce country, we are particularly vulnerable. Understanding this cascading effect is vital.”

On Monday, 17 May 2021, groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action were in the Pretoria High Court in a bid to order Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy to address the pollution in their communities. They are tired of dealing with asthma, other lung diseases and the cakes of black dust in their yards. Nine years after the adoption of the Highveld Priority Area Air Quality Management Plan, little has been done to guarantee Mpumalanga residents’ right to a clean environment as enshrined in section 24 of the Constitution, which reads:

“Everyone has the right a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or wellbeing; and b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation; ii) promote conservation; and iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.”

When you look at its consequences for health, water systems, weather patterns, etc, coal is not that cheap.

Now, to the issue of the just transition. It is difficult to fathom exactly what the government’s plans are in this regard. A just transition does not only mean decarbonising the South African economy. It also means finding just, fair and similar wages for the people and communities that have been wedded to the fossil capitalism model for so long. Again let me quote from Ramaphosa’s 26 April letter: “A just transition is one in which the country reduces its reliance on fossil fuels and its emission of greenhouse gases while sustaining economic growth, creating jobs and protecting those most affected by these changes.”

If we go by the way the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy is managing the beneficiaries of the independent power producer tenders, can we call the transition just? Has the wider South African public been involved in the transition? Why is a small group of investors being prioritised over the wider population?

Solar panels have become “insanely cheap”, as Royce Kurmelovs put it in The Guardian on 24 April 2021. Many models already exist around the world, including the EU (the Clean Energy Package), the UK and Australia (Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme) where families get subsidies and tax exemptions to install rooftop solar PV panels, wind turbines, solar water heaters, etc. South Africa could have adopted a similar approach. Karpowership SA stands to make an eye-watering R218-billion or $15-billion over the 20-year contract period. This is money that could have gone to South African families.

True, South Africa has many competing priorities, so it has to look for the cheapest way to generate electricity to power its industries. However, funding should be pursued by working with other African countries to get richer countries to pay for adaptation and mitigation.

During his speech on Tuesday, Mantashe also cautioned that it was important to manage the independent power producer tenders well to ward off “scavengers” who just want to make quick money. Unfortunately, limiting independent power producers to banks, venture capital and connected individuals means that most producers will absolutely go only to people who want to make a quick buck. With every new round of independent power producers, workers are being left out, rural communities are being left behind and more money is continuing to flow to the few at the top of the trickle-down pyramid.

The minister also noted with delight that mines and more than 200 entities have already weaned themselves off Eskom. Now, what does that do to revenue collection in the struggling municipalities, if we agree that the just transition is a priority? Drive around any city during load shedding and you will see that we are already in a two-track system. The rich, who can afford solar panels and inverters, have no load shedding. It is really the middle classes and the poor who have to deal with power cuts and their attendant problems.

Every new solar panel on a roof is a big win for South Africa, but we must also make sure that the majority are not left behind. DM

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  • Our leaders have never been there”for the people”As citizenry we must change
    this but it is late in the day.Time for real leaders. Thule Madonsela,and those of like ilk ,Mrs Khoza etc.we have to count on real leaders to stand up.At present our goverment is stealing us poor and themselves rich.

  • The power-ships bring in almost no local content.
    Government’s commitment to a just transition or job creation should be interrogated.

  • 3 articles on Greedy Gwede and his Dinosaur Energy Plans in one morning. All three roundly criticise and dismiss this foolish man and his ridiculous,pompous and arrogant notions. And he still has his secret nuclear notions. At least Ace is just a dumb thief.

  • Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted