Energy policy will be a catastrophe for Africa
On April 22, Earth Day, US President Joe Biden will gather world leaders to discuss the need to act on the climate crisis. At the summit, major polluting nations, including SA, will be asked to outline how their countries “will contribute to stronger climate ambition”.
Some in the South African government will use the summit to laud their new plans to increase our ambition on climate change. In reality, their plans are inadequate.
The plans were released a couple of weeks ago by the department of fisheries, forestry & environment in the form of a draft of SA’s National Determined Contribution, which is the document we submit to the UN detailing how we plan to respond to climate change.
A key element is how we plan to reduce greenhouse gases. The government’s answer is basically that it will pollute a lot for decades, but a little less than before.
The department says its plan is equal to SA’s fair share of the world’s efforts to keep warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels. There are a few major problems with this claim.
First, the goal that scientists, all African nations, and the global South have long been calling for is 1.5°C, not 2°C. That is because the extra half degree of warming makes a world of difference and would spell catastrophic impacts, particularly for Africa and the global South.
In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “a global goal of about 2°C is to condemn Africa to incineration”. Yet African incineration is what the government now proudly proclaims it is aiming for.
The second problem is that the maths does not add up in our government’s claim that it is in line with even the inadequate 2°C goal. To make that claim the government refers to Climate Action Tracker, a website that ranks countries’ climate action plans. Climate Action Tracker responded, saying our new plans are “insufficient” and do not align with the 2°C target.
What’s worse, many scientists believe Climate Action Tracker is too conservative, and we must reduce emissions much faster than their projections. Otherwise we will have to rely on unproven geo-engineering to somehow pull massive amounts of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
In the words of climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Glen Peters, those “negative-emission technologies are not an insurance policy, but rather an unjust and high-stakes gamble”.
SA’s target is far too weak, continues to make the climate crisis worse for decades to come, and makes “an unjust and high-stakes gamble” on unproven geoengineering schemes. We should be ashamed, not proud.
The state-owned elephant in the room is Eskom, the biggest climate polluter on the continent. In fairness to Eskom, its current leadership is trying to get off of polluting coal power and onto cheaper, cleaner renewables. However, the department of mineral resources & energy has been trying to lock our country into more polluting energy.
Through the 2019 Integrated Resources Plan, mineral resources minister Gwede Mantashe and the department made some “policy adjustments” to force in new coal power and lots of fossil gas. They did that despite their own economic modelling showing that renewable energy was a cheaper option.
Rather than embrace a cheaper renewable energy future, which would be the fastest way to bring new energy online, the department constrained renewable energy in the resources plan. It also continued to strangle the sector through red tape, delays and bureaucracy. In doing so it locked us into deepening power cuts.
The department is now using the power-cut crisis it helped create to force us into 20 years of polluting and expensive energy in the form of Turkish power ships, typically the last resort of failed states.
As the president’s economic advisory council warned, the department rigged the bidding to favour expensive power ships over more affordable renewable energy.
This is not just about climate change, as important as that is. By locking us into more coal, gas and the madness of power ships, Mantashe and the department are also sabotaging our economy. They are preventing us from ending power cuts, killing jobs in the renewable sector, and making our energy more expensive, likely to benefit a few connected cadres.
Until we fix our corrupt and polluting energy systems, South Africans should feel no pride in our woefully inadequate climate plans. That’s why the Climate Justice Coalition is continuing its campaign for a green new Eskom and its call for a rapid and just transition to renewable energy. Anything else will deepen our climate, economic, and power-cut crises.