When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the promise of the US, EU and UK of $ 8.5 billion (around R130 billion) in funding to accelerate South Africa’s shift from dependence on fossil fuels, it called it a watershed moment for a just energy transition.
A few days later, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, one of the top leaders of the Ramaphosa administration, contradicted him. Not directly, but through his call for African governments to unite in opposing the coal ban.
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There was once a strong bond between the two due to their leadership roles in the National Union of Mine Workers (NUM). Is this the sign of divergent paths, as far as energy policy is concerned?
Or does it point to the growing separation between comrades over the best way forward for South Africa?
Perhaps some will say that I am making something out of nothing. Ultimately, the power granted to Ramaphosa by the executive office grants him autonomy.
The intersection of climate change, the national agenda addressing the crisis and South Africa’s energy security generates controversial policies on a global environmental change policy.
For example, as one of the largest coal producers in Africa, South African mining companies, the government, unions and Eskom have vested interests in the continued production of coal for their benefit.
Why unions? Well, coal mining directly employs 91,459 workers (according to Mineral Council South Africa Facts and Figures 2020) and is the most important mining sector, accounting for 24% in terms of weighted production volumes.
The other beneficiary is Eskom; As the main electricity generation company in the country, it consumes large amounts of coal.
Source of income
However, the domestic coal industry has also seen an increase in global demand, although the pandemic persists to the point where coal producers choose the highest paying market. In short, from an economic perspective, coal is currently the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Also, 2021 started with bullish coal demand as China increased its coal imports from South Africa. SA ranks third after Indonesia and Russia as beneficiaries of the Chinese government, allowing the country’s power plants to import coal from countries previously restricted due to freight differences.
Other countries where there is demand for local coal are India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. More will join soon, considering that some Southeast Asian countries continue to build coal stations.
It’s no wonder, then, that Mantashe is hesitant in the face of resounding calls to phase out coal.
After all, the commodity is key to the economy, it is still a lifeline for South Africans, and it is essential for power generation.
The energy produced by coal not only fuels local needs, but also those of countries such as Botswana, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.
Therefore, the dependence on coal is destined for consumption, as well as income generated by exporting to other countries.
However, in the face of the irrefutable truth that climate change is a crisis of today and the future, scientific evidence shows that its effects will leave developing economies worse off.
The emphasis on the interrelationship between environmental and social issues has led to increased calls for countries to accelerate their just transition programs.
While diversifying away from fossil fuels may not suit Mantashe well, the transition from reliance on coal for electricity must begin.
Now, more than at any other period in human history, the unsustainability of capitalism’s fossil fuel-powered means of production and consumption is evident.
The interaction between humans and nature has caused a climate crisis that cannot be ignored.
Furthermore, the scale of environmental degradation due to climate change will affect developing countries the most, as many lack the financial and infrastructure capacity to make the transition to clean energy. Therefore, due to its limited economic endowment and geographic location, the global South that makes up most of the developing economies remains dependent on fossil fuels.
Although it is making significant progress in renewable energy, South Africa is also caught in the grip of electricity produced by coal.
In theory, it doesn’t seem impossible to quit fossil fuels …
After all, technological innovation and forward-thinking pro-fair transition policy can lead the world in the next direction, can’t it?
It is not so simple. The case of South Africa illustrates how the external crisis that is full of twists and turns (climate change governance, North-South relationship, advanced countries versus developing countries, carbon-rich Africa, and the unwillingness of rich nations to commit to the Paris Agreement) has gotten worse. the internal crisis.
On the one hand, South Africa, as the president alluded to, wants to make the transition towards clean and environmentally friendly energy production.
On the other hand, Mantashe has reminded Africa that its coal remains an asset in demand.
Perhaps the most extraordinary twist in this energy security narrative has been Eskom’s relentless cargo shedding, a stark reminder that dependence on coal will not stop now or for the foreseeable future.