Mantashe: Rich nations shouldn’t force SA to ban new coal-power projects

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Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe.
Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe.
Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24

Rich nations shouldn’t force South Africa to ban new coal-power projects and impose other conditions as a requirement for funding to help reduce its environmental footprint, the country’s energy minister said.

Gwede Mantashe last month skipped a meeting with climate envoys from the UK, U.S., Germany, France and the European Union, where an initial amount of almost $5 billion (R74 billion) in concessional loans and grants was discussed. South Africa’s environment and public enterprises ministers attended the talks, as did the deputy finance minister.

 The envoys aim to reach an emissions-reduction deal with South Africa that could be announced at the COP26 climate talks that begin in Glasgow later this month and serve as a model for other countries seeking to transition to green energy.

"They must not give us conditions, they are developed countries," Mantashe said in an interview on Tuesday. "We are a developing economy, they must talk to our program."

Mantashe has repeatedly stressed security of power supply as his priority, promoting coal, nuclear and gas as sources of generation to replace old coal-fired plants. South Africa is being subjected to a record year of blackouts, which are implemented to prevent a total collapse of the grid when the state power utility can’t meet demand. 

The country is the world’s 12th-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, with wind and solar energy currently accounting for only about 6% of supply and coal more than 80%. 

Mantashe’s attitude is seen as putting him at odds with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who in a letter to the nation this week spoke of the need to cut emissions and win climate aid. The consequences of not doing so will ultimately harm South Africa’s ability to trade, as tariffs could be imposed on carbon-heavy goods, the president said.

Rushing into renewables at the expense of coal can have adverse consequences, such as the power outages currently being seen in China, India and the UK, Mantashe said.

Careful transition

“If we move like pendulum from one extreme to another we are going to be in the same situation ourselves,” he said. “We must have a clear program. We must navigate the transition carefully, in an organized way.”

Mantashe defended the country’s 2019 energy blueprint, which allows for the development of 1,500 megawatts of new coal capacity. This, he said, will allow South Africa to experiment with new technologies that may cut emissions when the fuel is burnt. 

“If we discover that they are useful then we can increase it,” he said. “We are not saying use the current technology.”

That blueprint also envisions the development of 3,000 megawatts of gas-fired generation. That ambition was given impetus by TotalEnergies SE’s 2019 announcement of a discovery of about 1 billion barrels of oil equivalent at its Brulpadda field off the country’s south coast.

“It’s a game-changer,” Mantashe said. "We are making sizable discoveries of gas. We must use them.”

Environment Minister Barbara Creecy and the country’s two biggest coal users, Eskom and Sasol, have said gas will be needed as a transition fuel while renewable energy is ramped up. The government recently increased its stake in a pipeline that brings the fuel in from Mozambique, and Mantashe has called for quicker steps to allow the importation of liquefied natural gas.

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