SA is blow­ing its car­bon bud­get

The num­bers don’t add up as emis­sions from coal-fired power sta­tions are al­lowed to grow

Mail & Guardian - - News - Sipho Kings

South Africa has a cli­mate change prob­lem. Per per­son, South Africans emit more than any­one out­side of the West. It is the world’s 14th largest emit­ter of car­bon diox­ide.

Three-quar­ters of these emis­sions come from Eskom’s coal-fired power plants and Sa­sol’s coal-to-liq­uid fuel plant at Se­cunda, the largest in the world. Tack­ling emis­sions ef­fec­tively would mean tak­ing tough de­ci­sions about these. But the coun­try’s plans are nowhere near am­bi­tious enough. If they were, Eskom would ei­ther have to close down its Medupi and Kusile power plants (which are just com­ing into op­er­a­tion) or Sa­sol would have to close down its lu­cra­tive Se­cunda plant.

Both en­ti­ties have in­di­cated that this is not go­ing to hap­pen. Sa­sol has said it won’t build an­other plant like Se­cunda, partly be­cause of its car­bon foot­print.

South Africa’s na­tional plan for low­er­ing car­bon emis­sions was drawn up in 2007 be­fore the global fi­nan­cial crash and be­fore re­new­able en­ergy could cre­ate en­ergy more cheaply than coal-pow­ered plants. Each year, the coun­try emits nearly 500-mil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide. The goal sees this con­tin­u­ing to 2025, be­fore plateau­ing out, and then de­creas­ing from 2036.

Cli­mate Ac­tion Tracker, a Euro­pean group that digs into coun­try cli­mate plans to see their cu­mu­la­tive global ef­fect, rates the South African plan as “highly in­suf­fi­cient”. If ev­ery coun­try in the world adopted a sim­i­lar ap­proach, the world would warm by 4°C this cen­tury, dou­ble what is con­sid­ered safe by the United Na­tion’s In­ter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change.

And even the num­bers in the al­ready re­laxed plan from 2007 will be hard to achieve. The coun­try as a whole can emit 14-gi­ga­tons of car­bon diox­ide un­til 2050, which is its car­bon bud­get. The idea is for the govern­ment to split it up and de­cide how much each part of the econ­omy can emit. But, as South Africa is oper­at­ing now, it will have used up its whole bud­get be­fore 2040.

Eskom’s Medupi and Kusile power plants will take 7.4-gi­ga­tons of this bud­get, ac­cord­ing to data from the En­ergy Re­search Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of Cape Town. Their num­bers show that the only way the tar­get can be met is if Sa­sol re­duces pro­duc­tion at Se­cunda, start­ing in 2025, be­fore shut­ting it down in 2040. Oth­er­wise, Eskom will have to shut down both its mega­plants by 2045, two decades ahead of sched­ule.

The law gov­ern­ing the car­bon bud­get, the Na­tional Cli­mate Change Bill, was gazetted for com­ment in June. It gives the en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter the power to set a bud­get for each part of the econ­omy. Com­pa­nies will then have to sub­mit plans ex­plain­ing how they will reach this tar­get, which will be made more am­bi­tious ev­ery five years. Fail­ure to do so will carry a R5-mil­lion fine.

But the ef­fec­tive­ness of this will de­pend on the depart­ment hav­ing the ca­pac­ity, and the will, to en­force it. State-owned en­ti­ties, such as Eskom, are not cur­rently in­cluded and pri­vate com­pa­nies have al­ready stymied this process by re­fus­ing to dis­close their car­bon emis­sions to the govern­ment.

The trea­sury has its own plan to curb car­bon emis­sions with a tax that will come into force mid-2019. Com­pa­nies will have to pay up to R120 for each tonne of car­bon they emit. Sa­sol says this will cost it be­tween R700-mil­lion and R2-bil­lion a year. In the­ory, the pro­ceeds from the tax will go to­wards help­ing com­pa­nies to lower their car­bon emis­sions.

But most gov­ern­ments have lit­tle power to make fun­da­men­tal changes to how en­ergy com­pa­nies in­vest in dif­fer­ent sources of power. This is some­thing that some in­vestors have now taken up. Around the world, share­hold­ers have started tabling “two-de­gree sce­nario res­o­lu­tions”. These ask com­pa­nies to look at what they need to do to re­duce their car­bon emis­sions to keep global warm­ing to 2°C.

For en­ti­ties such as Sa­sol, this can mean that prof­itable as­sets, its coalto-liq­uid plants, will have to be shut down be­fore they pay, them­selves.

This move­ment is be­ing driven by pen­sion funds, which are wor­ried that their money is go­ing into com­pa­nies that can­not con­tinue to op­er­ate if they are warm­ing the world. Cen­tral banks and stock ex­changes are also in­creas­ingly call­ing for emis­sions dis­clo­sures. The Bank of Eng­land now re­quires com­pa­nies to dis­close their plans for cli­mate change. The JSE has sim­i­lar ini­tia­tives, ex­cept these are vol­un­tary.

Things are chang­ing, but not fast enough. The cur­rent rate of global warm­ing will mean the worst pos­si­ble out­come, when the ecosys­tems that the econ­omy and life rely on col­lapse.

Dodgy: Car­bon emis­sions from fa­cil­i­ties such as Se­cunda’s coal-to-liq­uid fuel plant are higher than they should be. Photo: Del­wyn Verasamy

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