Ferial Haffajee: It's Greta vs. Gwede as SA announces new energy plan

If you were to put the Integrated Resource Plan released by Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe on Friday through the test of the world’s leading environmental activist, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, it’s a fail. 

The plan is still coal-dependent. It states that, by 2030, 58% of SA's electricity will still be generated by coal. While the plan may make a nod towards renewable energy, it's still only a nod.

Search the document and you'll find the word coal used many more times than terms such as renewable, sun, wind or other energy forms that are far more sustainable. While storing this kind of energy is still a work in progress, the technology is growing in leaps and bounds.  Political will in a country like South Africa - with lots of sun and good winds along the coast – could have seen it shoot up the leaderboards of energy planning. 

Thunberg’s September speech to the United Nations was a wake-up call to “you” – today’s leaders she charged with a pathetic response to the climate emergency – from “we” – children or tomorrow’s generation, who have to live with the outcomes of the policies put in place today.

Viewed through such a lens, Mantashe’s plan does not cut the mustard.  The minister is still a miner at heart and a mine workers' unionist in spirit. This identity has influenced his future energy plan. It is a document concerned with protecting today’s jobs and today’s mining industry, which is why it is laced with a commitment only to clean coal energy, not with committed consideration of how we start the journey to end the fossil fuel economy.

The new consciousness

Of course, Mantashe has to think of today’s workers. But there is a new consciousness and consensus about sustainability that any modern policymaker must acknowledge.

The movement called the Extinction Rebellion, started by Thunberg and now gaining traction across the world, has hastened - together with the Paris agreement on carbon emission reduction - a move away from coal, not only by environmentalists but business too. Most leading South African banks have joined global lists of funders who will not touch the coal value chain. 

Yet, the IRP2019 – the term for the integrated plan – is coal-dependent.  “Beyond Medupi and Kusile [the coal-fired power stations commissioned by Eskom and which are responsible for load shedding this month], coal will continue to play a significant role in electricity provision in SA in the foreseeable future as it is the largest base of installed generation capacity,” states the plan. 

The energy blueprint envisages more (presumably) coal-fired power stations built by private sector power producers and in small (modular) numbers, not as fleets.  This is already happening in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, and it is green-lighted in the energy plan.

Protecting today at the expense of tomorrow

It’s interesting that the document also uses the research of the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) into energy transitions, and not the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) work on the climate emergency.  Mantashe does so because he is from the labour movement, and well-known in ILO circles. Thunberg, by contrast, references IPCC research in all her speeches. 

The IRP2019 document quotes from the ILO, which says, “Policies (energy transition) must respect, promote, and realise fundamental principles and rights at work. These coherent policies also need to provide a just transition framework for all to promote and the creation of more decent jobs, including appropriate anticipating impacts on employment, adequate and sustainable social protection for job losses and displacement, skills development and social dialogue …”.

The ILO’s view is far more resonant with Mantashe than the work of the IPCC, which has found that global warming (or global heating) is much more intense than earlier research, and calls for faster climate emission reduction, even in the developing world. 

The two organisations' definitions of how quickly a just energy transition should take place are also different – one envisages a slow transition; the other, a much faster one as extinction is now a more and more reliable future scenario. 

While Mantashe favours a slow transition  (it’s fair to note, though, that his new energy planning does pivot toward renewable forms of energy), Thunberg’s vision that is going viral amongst a new generation is for a much faster and revolutionary transition in how we think about the environment and sustaining it for future generations.  

Who has the minister’s ear?

The minister must have the ear for trade unionists and of coal miners who fear for their jobs. Leading unionists like Irvin Jim of the SA Federation of Trade Unions are viscerally opposed to extending the contracts the state, through Eskom, has guaranteed to renewable energy independent power producers.  But Thunberg speaks for tomorrow’s generation and there is almost no ear given to that generation in the energy blueprint Mantashe released on Friday.  

The document is minimalist in its thinking on emissions reduction targets, and it pays little more than lip-service to the provisions in South African environmental laws. It offers only the palliative of a quicker transition to clean coal, rather than meeting the fundamental challenges Thunberg’s movement has thrown at political leaders.   

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