As we attempt to recover from the economic and public-health effects of Covid-19, we must also address one of the great challenges facing South Africa, namely, the future of Eskom. That is why today, on World Environment Day, we as the Climate Justice Coalition are launching a Green New Eskom campaign. We are demanding a rapid and just transition to a renewable-energy-powered, zero-carbon economy, providing clean, safe and affordable energy for all, with no worker or community left behind.
We must be honest: Eskom’s reliance on expensive, unreliable and polluting coal is killing us. Electricity tariff increases and load-shedding are crippling the South African economy and hurting the poor. Eskom’s unsustainable debt levels are draining tens of billions of rands in taxpayer money and driving austerity. Its power is literally killing our people through air and water pollution. Furthermore, as the biggest climate polluter in Africa, it is causing death and devastation across the world through climate change.
A better Eskom and a more just energy future is possible though, if we pursue a swift transition to renewable energy that benefits all South Africans. Renewable energy is now South Africa’s cheapest form of energy. And it is creating jobs. Research shows that compared to sticking to our polluting system, a 100% renewable-energy future can create 200 000 more jobs by 2030 and one million more by 2050. It would also lower the cost of energy by 25%, save 196-billion litres of water a year, make our energy system more reliable, and remove our biggest source of air, water and climate pollution.
As we transition to renewable energy, we cannot leave behind the workers who have given their blood and sweat to keep the lights on. We must protect workers and communities who depend on coal for their livelihoods. We must ensure their voices are at the centre of a robust, inclusive process to define and implement a just transition. A just transition is vital, not optional.
Additionally, to ensure that renewable energy brings more benefits to the people of South Africa, we must pursue a more socially owned renewable energy future rather than privatising Eskom and allowing foreign multinationals to dominate.
With millions of people still lacking access to electricity, we must also ensure affordable energy for all. Renewable energy provides the most affordable and fastest way to provide universal energy access. Low-income South Africans deserve an expansion of the insufficient indigent free electricity allocation, rather than constantly being cut off and load-shedd. We must reject the inhumanity of leaving the poorest and most vulnerable in our society out in the dark and in the cold, especially with the onset of winter. We must ensure energy for everyone, so that all South Africans can have the power they need to meet their basic needs.
Research shows that air pollution sharply increases the risks of dying from Covid-19. Even before Covid-19, air pollution was killing millions of people globally every year. Despite this, during the first days of the lockdown, the government weakened air-pollution regulations. South Africa’s coal-fired power air-pollution regulations for sulphur dioxide are now 28 times weaker than China’s and 10 times weaker than India’s. Before taking into account the increased risks from Covid-19, the weakening of this regulation was projected to result in an additional 3 300 deaths. Rather than weakening regulations, we must strengthen them to ensure every South African’s constitutional right “to an environment that isn’t harmful to their health or wellbeing”.
Recognising that air pollution and climate change are some of the world’s biggest public-health threats, more than 350 organisations, representing at least 40-million health workers — about half the global medical workforce — have signed an open letter calling for a green recovery to Covid-19. They recognise that we cannot solve one public-health threat by stoking another. That is why they are also calling to shift subsidies away from harmful fossil fuels to support renewable energy instead.
With Covid-19’s economic impacts devastating South Africa, as the Cry of the Xcluded has demanded, we desperately need a major programme to put South Africans to work building a more socially, economically and environmentally just future. Renewable energy is a crucial part of that. As research from Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies shows, “Unlocking renewable energy investments as part of the post-lockdown stimulus package would bring multiple benefits, from fostering inclusive growth to stimulating industrial development and sustainable energy systems.”
The time is long past due for action on Eskom, energy access, a just transition, climate change and pollution. Enough is enough! That’s why we as the Climate Justice Coalition are launching the Green New Eskom Campaign. The coalition is made up of trade unions, civil society and community organisations working together to advance a transformative climate justice agenda. Together with dozens of organisations we are demanding a rapid and just transition to a renewable-energy-powered, zero-carbon economy, providing clean, safe and affordable energy for all, with no worker or community left behind.
For the sake of a more socially and ecologically just future we are asking South Africans to stand with us; to join our call. For the sake of our children, of our workers, of our communities, of our environment and of our people, the time to act is now, before it is too late. A better future is possible, but we must rise up together to demand it, to build it and to ensure that it benefits the many, not just the few.
Submitted by the undersigned on behalf of the Climate Justice Coalition:
Mametlwe Sebei, president of the General Industries Workers Union of South Africa; Cleopatra Shezi, community activist, Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee; Rehad Desai, activist, Extinction Rebellion Gauteng; Alex Lenferna, climate justice campaigner, 350Africa.org and secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition
The Climate Justice Coalition is an emerging coalition of South African trade unions, civil society and community organisations working together on climate justice.