The coal industry is holding South Africa to ransom and preventing it from moving to a low carbon economy, say climate change experts.
And government is using the trade unions' fear of losing coal jobs as a convenient excuse to maintain the status quo of a coal-based economy with high greenhouse gas emissions.
This emerged from a panel discussion of climate change experts who said on Wednesday that Cabinet must scrap its obsolete climate change objectives and "get decisive".
Hilton Trollip, engineer and researcher at UCT's Energy Research Centre, said government's commitments to cutting emissions and tackling climate change were "grossly inadequate".
"If everyone did what South Africa is doing, we would have a climate catastrophe," Trollip said.
The event was convened by climate change NGO Project 90, where representatives from several civil society organisations issued a challenge to President Cyril Ramaphosa and his Cabinet to put the interests of all South Africans ahead of vested interests; to show they were not in denial about climate science; and to take real action to avoid "catastrophic" climate change.
South Africa, with 95% of its electricity generated by coal, has one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world.
Trollip said even the "grossly inadequate" commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions had not been implemented.
However, the status quo was not sustainable.
Trollip said the country's electricity system was facing collapse. Eskom had massive debt that it had said it could not pay back from revenues.
It would make sense economically to move to renewables on a large scale as the least cost electricity option, and one that would generate jobs, foreign investment and cut emissions, panel members said.
Ramaphosa's 'complicated job'
Trollip acknowledged that President Cyril Ramaphosa had a "complicated job to stay in office", which included having to "look after the coal guys". The minute he failed to do so, he would be in trouble.
"Coal interests in South Africa are sinking this economy," Trollip said.
"But you do need to protect the coal workers. The coal miner in Mpumalanga is not going to be a PV installer in Cape Town. You need to have a plan for these workers, otherwise politics will just slow the whole process down."
So far, there were no plans ready to tackle this and make a just transition from coal to renewables.
Trollip said research done by UCT's Energy Research Centre, using the latest cost projections and energy demands, showed that over a 20-year period to 2040 the least expensive electricity option for South Africa would be to close down most of Eskom's coal power stations and put in renewables.
Nicole Loser of the Centre for Environmental Rights said South Africa had no greenhouse gas standards or thresholds.
"The climate change draft bill is welcome, but it goes nowhere near far enough to regulate climate change," Loser said.
There was no co-ordination in government about tackling climate change, which was seen as an environmental issue, rather than one that affected the whole of society and the economy.
Loser said the Departments of Health, of Energy, Transport, Mineral Resources and others should be deeply involved. But even the Department of Environment lacked the urgency required to fight climate change.
"The policy says we need to urgently reduce emissions, yet government authorizes new coal power stations – and ones that are 60% more energy intensive than Eskom's."
Loser said the government and private companies would not make any greenhouse gas emissions public. This was unacceptable, as companies must be held accountable for their emissions.
"We need full, mandatory disclosure. We need clear targets and emissions trajectory. And government can't be authorising new coal plants or mines and must urgently start decommissioning existing ones. All decision-making must be subject to climate change considerations," Loser said.
Glen Tyler from climate activist group 350.Org said the two proposed coal power stations would add R20bn onto South Africa's electricity bill.
"That is equivalent to 4 million child support grants."
Richard Worthington said the government claimed to have a strategy to tackle climate change, but all it had was "a set of vague intentions".
"It is pretending to be doing something when actually it is simply maintaining the status quo," Worthington said.
The term "just transition", used to describe the process of moving away from a coal economy while looking after those who would lose their jobs, described a real situation that needed to be tackled.
"But instead the term has been taken up and used in defence of the status quo, as a way of resisting change."