Last Friday, climate activists from Extinction Rebellion held protests outside the department of mineral resources. They were demanding an end to the polluting and climate destabilising energy policies that are being pursued under the leadership of Gwede Mantashe, the minister of mineral resources and energy. While Mantashe does not deny that climate change is happening as United States President Donald Trump does, his approach to energy parallels Trump’s in many ways.
Climate scientists have made clear that we need to move away from fossil fuels rapidly to avert dangerous climate destabilisation. Study after study says we must move away from fossil fuels if we are to meet the Paris climate agreement targets. Yet Mantashe, like Trump, is flying in the face of our climate emergency, attempting to burn and extract as much coal, oil and gas as he possibly can.
From pushing for water intensive fracking for gas in the drought-stricken Karoo, to opening up massive new tracts of the ocean for oil and gas exploration up and down South Africa’s coast, to forcing the community of Xolobeni to accept mining on their land, Mantashe is (ab)using his position to enrich polluting corporations at the expense of communities and the environment.
While Mantashe has denied that he is a “coal fundamentalist”, the reality is that he is doing all he can to suppress renewable energy in favour of more polluting alternatives. South Africa suffers from load-shedding caused predominately by unreliable coal power, but Mantashe tries to tell us that coal is vital for grid stability and must be pursued.
Mantashe has been using the grid-stability excuse as a premise to push for artificially limiting how much renewable energy we can add into our energy future. That is despite the fact that researchers are clear that a renewable energy future is the most reliable, cheapest, most job-rich, least water-intensive energy future for South Africa.
One of Mantashe’s other Trumpisms is his continued call for “clean coal” technologies. Like Trump, Mantashe seems to think we can magically scrub coal clean. Unfortunately, coal is never really clean, as vast air and water pollution are inherent to the process of mining and burning coal, despite technologies which can make them ever-so-slightly less polluting.
Technologies that attempt to make coal climate-friendly by capturing and storing carbon emissions underground have proven prohibitively expensive. The US’s flagship “clean coal” power plant, equipped with carbon capture and storage, was declared dead on arrival by its chief executive, as the plant simply could not turn a profit burning coal. This follows a global trend, where hopes of carbon capture and storage are crashing on the rocks of economic reality.
Like Trump, Mantashe is promising that coal is a “sunrise industry” despite the fact that all indicators point to coal facing existential threats from cheaper renewable energy and climate action. Such promises of a bright future for coal serve to give dangerous false hope to coal workers. And if Mantashe thinks he can save coal, he should examine Trump’s failed attempts to do so, with US coal companies facing massive layoffs and bankruptcies.
Although Mantashe has given lip service to the idea of a “just transition” from fossil fuels, in practice he has put forward little by way of concrete policies to protect workers who are losing their jobs as the coal industry declines.
Just ask the devastated coal workers and communities in Hendrina who have seen their livelihoods disappear with no plan to protect them as coal mines and power stations are shut down. Hendrina provides a portent of what could happen across Mpumalanga if we pretend that coal is a sunrise industry and do not plan for the impending wide-scale transition from coal.
Climate justice activists aren’t the only ones who aren’t buying Mantashe’s coal-heavy, just-transition rhetoric. Last month, workers from the South African Federation of Trade Unions and the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa led a picket outside the department of energy, demanding a just transition to a renewable energy future. Workers at the picket recognised that climate change poses one of the gravest threats to their livelihoods. With coal on the way out, they want a just transition to renewable energy; one that protects coal-dependent workers and communities.
If Mantashe wants to be on the right side of history, he should listen to the more than seven million people who took to the streets last month demanding climate action. As things stand, his energy agenda serves to further destabilise the climate and pollute South Africa’s air and water. While climate scientists are telling us that our house is already on fire and we need to act urgently, Mantashe is pouring more fossil fuels on to the fire.
Dr Alex Lenferna serves as the South African climate justice campaigner with 350 Africa. He is a Fulbright and Mandela Rhodes Scholar and recently completed a PhD on climate justice at the University of Washington.