The fossil fuel industry is killing our future

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. This inequality emerges strongly in the face of inescapable natural disasters and adverse weather events brought about by a changing climate. (David Harrison/M&G)

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. This inequality emerges strongly in the face of inescapable natural disasters and adverse weather events brought about by a changing climate. (David Harrison/M&G)

Dear President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa:

We write to you as youth collectively concerned about the future of our world, particularly the ocean, air and environment all living things rely upon. We are just a few out of the millions of youthful South Africans who are conscious of the state we live in. Inspired by the sentiment of heroes past, we aspire to play a role in building a better future for our country.

To this end, Mr President, we seek to bring to your attention a host of environmental issues as well as the dangerous move conducted by Mining Minister Gwede Mantashe last year in December, when he lifted the moratorium on offshore hydrocarbon exploration.
Ill-advisedly and unwittingly, Mr Mantashe and the larger South African governing body are betraying the social compact between the government and those of us who are young, as well as those yet to be born.

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. This inequality emerges strongly in the face of inescapable natural disasters and adverse weather events brought about by a changing climate, as evidenced by what has befallen us here in KwaZulu-Natal and in Mozambique. One does not have to look very far back to recall the devastation brought about by the drought in the Western Cape, the severe sea storms off KwaZulu-Natal in 2017 and the now annual assault of wildfires that affect the Garden Route. The effects of climate change are felt most by those who have caused the least harm — the poor — ultimately costing the government and relief organisations dearly.

It therefore makes little economic sense to invest in industries that exacerbate climate change, as immense externalised costs eventually emerge down the value chain. The United Nations, in fact, stipulated that $2.2-trillion worth of fossil fuel projects are at risk of being stranded — that is, being left valueless as the market for fossil fuels shrinks.

Concrete, peer reviewed, globally accepted evidence supports the influence of climate change on weather, and our people are not prepared for it. Specific to South Africa, research shows that climate change is moving economically viable fish stocks – such as anchovy, round herring and sardines – in an eastward direction. There is a southward movement of spotted grunter, among other fish, an increase in the occurrence of algal blooms, which is detrimental to West Coast rock lobsters, and an overall increase in dangerous wind conditions in the Southern Cape.

These effects do not occur in isolation. Profitable and sustainable industries such as tourism, fishing, hospitality and agriculture are compromised because of the harmful effects of climate change.

South Africa once had to take unpopular but necessary decisions to address malignant, institutionalised racism.

It can be argued that this situation is not altogether dissimilar.

For a long time, the petroleum, coal and other fossil fuel industries have perpetuated this inequality by denying or diminishing the extent of climate change, subsequently trivialising the environmental and socioeconomic insecurity faced by so many. But, dear president, this is not news to you. As the country’s first citizen, you are privy to the geopolitical utterances made at high-level congregations such as the G20, G7 and Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summits you are obligated to attend. Climate change being a persistent issue at these gatherings must surely warrant the same decisive action we took against racism.

Sadly, our very own government ministries, such as the departments of mineral resources, energy and environmental affairs, through the goggles of sunset industry development, are creating an enabling environment for adverse climate effects. These are not just limited to those to be born in the future — many vulnerable and unprepared South Africans are already experiencing the dreadful repercussions of a fossil fuel-reliant global economy today, via the effect of accelerated climate change.

Honourable president, we would like to raise a few salient points of order to make our case:

  • Abstraction of natural gas to be used as a transition fuel is one of the justifications for oil and gas sector development. However, natural gas must undergo refining from gas to liquid to be more readily economised and transported. Natural gas in both gaseous and liquid forms is a fossil fuel product comprised largely of methane, which is nonreplenishable and not climate neutral, as methane has high global warming potential. Critics in years past have concluded that natural gas is more eco-friendly than coal, but it is still a flawed energy source.
  • In South Africa however, the flaws do not just end with liquefied natural gas as an energy source. Oil refineries and coal mines have materially and physiologically deprived the peripheral poor who work and live near these polluting industries for generations to come. Regions in Mpumalanga and the South Durban basin have prolific air pollution and the people living there suffer from related health issues.
  • Recent research shows us that particulate and gaseous pollution has a very long-term effect. Air pollution, for example, has been linked to a substantial decline in cognitive performance, which translates into a crippling lack of basic competencies in the next generation of South Africans. We are literally allowing the pollution of our country’s future gene pool.
  • It is correct for all of us to be in a desperate scramble to divest from coal and other fossil fuels, thereby saving lives; however, decision-makers in working groups must not inadvertently compromise the hydrological security of arid regions such as the Karoo, while also ensuring that more South Durban basins are not created in the pursuit and refining of “natural gas”. Those decision-makers also must ensure the government does not transfer the burden from the “flawed energy source” consequence on to us, the youth, who will inherit the future.
  • Active South Africans are aware that the renewable transition is complicated by the loss of livelihoods that may occur once coal mines, coal fire power stations and, hopefully, oil refineries close. This is a livelihood loss that unions have rallied against, despite it being in their best interests climatically. Mr President, you are therefore stuck in a Catch-22 position, where the need for rapid fossil fuel divestment is countered by the need for the livelihood security of a fossil fuel-dependent workforce. We believe that in the midst of this impasse, an avenue emerges for a just, logical transition away from fossil fuel extraction towards sustainable industries such as those in the renewable energy, tourism and agriculture sectors.
  • Being such a topical issue, land restitution has a role to play in achieving this transition. The youth, and most South Africans, we hope, are cognisant that land redress is underpinned by the need for rectification of previous, present and perpetual dispossession of dignity. The process, however, is being seen in conservative corners as an unwarranted but legislated chastisement for past injustices, subsequently brewing societal discord.
  • Mr President, the concept of the renewable transition may be employed as a “green” supplementary impetus for consolidating national conviction towards land reform. Let our people work the land towards sustainable industries in the name of combatting climate change and once more make South Africa a beacon of transformation at a fundamental level.
  • Ricocheting from a growing malcontent towards environmentally unsound industrialised agriculture and the employment fallout from the inevitable fossil fuel divestment, extractive manual labour in mines and power stations should be replaced with more wholesome labour-intensive permaculture, ecotourism and agroecology as a means to address critical contemporary issues. This is where the land debate should be directed and it may be accomplished in conjunction with a just energy transition, facilitated by relying on science as well as the indigenous knowledge of our people.
  • One only has to look to the people of Matatiele, the Mantis Assistance Project, African Conservation Trust and Gift of the Givers for selfless inspiration in this regard.
  • We have the capacity for alternatives here in South Africa, Mr President. Power fuels, hydrogen fuel cells (which can give the struggling platinum industry a reboot), as well as solar, tidal, wind, hydro, geothermal and concentrated solar power, are options available to us.
  • As a first step in this direly necessary transition, please urge Mr Mantashe to reinstate the moratorium on offshore hydrocarbon exploration, which threatens our oceans, air and future.
  • Madness has been defined as repeating the same process but expecting different results. The extractivism-heavy mineral energy complex, which the country’s economy was once built on, has led to the rampant disconnect we experience in society today. It would therefore be madness to double down on fossil fuel extractivism and expect a different result, apart from the further tearing of South Africa’s strained social fabric.

    The climate issue is no longer one of rich versus poor, black versus white, the haves versus the have-nots. It transcends all societal boundaries; we will all surely suffer. Please take decisive action on fossil fuels, Mr President.

    Kind regards

    This is an edited version of an open letter sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa

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