Sona 2022: We will continue to support gas development — Ramaphosa

Despite the huge backlash against seismic surveys in South Africa’s waters, the government will continue to support the development of the upstream gas industry because it “holds huge potential for job creation and broader economic development,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said during his State of the Nation address (Sona) on Thursday.

“We will ensure this is done in strict accordance with the environmental and other laws of our country,” he said. “Where there are differences in oil and gas development we will ensure that we work together to resolve them in the interest of our country and its people.”

But Greenpeace Africa climate and energy campaigner Nhlanhla Sibisi said Ramaphosa “must let go of any fantasies” that gas power will light South Africa’s future. “Gas will only lock South Africa into a high emissions trajectory and derail our commitments under the Paris Agreement.”

South Africa, Ramaphosa said, is located in one of the regions of the world most affected by climate change. “We frequently experience droughts, floods and other extreme weather events associated with global warming,” he said, adding how, in recent weeks, flooding had affected several provinces, including KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

“For the first time, our climate targets are compatible with limiting warming to 1.5°C. This is the goal that all countries agreed to as part of the Paris Climate Agreement and is essential to prevent the worst effects of climate change,” the president said.

In response, however, Sibisi said that Ramaphosa was wrong in saying that South Africa’s climate commitments were ambitious enough. “While South Africa’s nationally determined contributions have improved, they are still insufficient. Rather, they are in line with a future where average global temperatures have increased by 2°C, a scenario not compatible with human survival.” 

Ramaphosa must remain resolute in the goal to limit global temperatures from exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, said Sibisi. 

Working towards a just transition

Ramaphosa had said that the presidential climate commission “has done much work to support a just transition to a sustainable, inclusive, resilient and low-carbon economy”.

In his address, he hailed the historic R131-billion deal South Africa struck with the EU, France, Germany, UK and the US at COP26. “This first of its kind partnership will involve repurposing and repowering some of the coal plants that are reaching the end of their lives and creating new livelihoods for workers and communities most impacted by this change,” 

Ramaphosa this week appointed Daniel Mminele, a former deputy governor of the Reserve Bank, as head of the presidential climate finance task team “to lead the mobilisation of funds for our just transition”.

According to Sibisi, this pledge by Global North countries as a part of the just-transition agreement remains a crucial opportunity for the government to facilitate a fair and just transition towards a low-carbon economy. “Greenpeace Africa wants to see the president assuring South Africans that this partnership will be taken seriously, and not taken as an opportunity for graft,” he said.

“Properly managed,” Ramaphosa said, “the energy transition will benefit all. Renewable energy will make electricity cheaper and more dependable, and will allow our industries to remain globally competitive. Investments in electric vehicles and hydrogen will equip South Africa to meet the global clean energy future.”

South Africa, he said, will be able to expand its mining industry in “strategic minerals crucial for clean energy, such as platinum, vanadium, cobalt, copper, manganese and lithium.”

Renewable energy

Hydrogen, Sibisi asserted, is not the answer. “The best and most immediate solution to South Africa’s problems is a just transition to renewable energy. It’s that simple. On Eskom, we welcome the steps to unbundle the monstrosity that is our electricity supplier. 

“The fact that renewables will be playing a bigger role is an indication that the government is beginning to see reason. Renewable energy across all levels is the answer to load-shedding. South Africans need the potential of renewable energy at a residential level to be unlocked.”

Michelle Pressend, a lecturer in environmental sociology at the University of Cape Town, said: “One of the key strategies to address the climate crisis is renewable energy transitions, predominantly understood as a process for substituting fossil fuel energy. 

“So when the president speaks about climate change, he’s likely to focus on South Africa’s commitment to renewable energy, given that the country’s electricity supply is mostly dependent on coal.”

Independent power producers

In the past two years, Ramaphosa, she said, had proudly referred to the introduction of renewable energy independent power producers (IPPs) and expressed how South Africa has become one of the leading global destinations for renewable energy investment.

“He spoke about expanding additional capacity from existing wind and solar plants. So besides the challenge of phasing out coal, Eskom is increasingly becoming unreliable in supplying electricity. Many big electricity users have started to go off the grid and generate their own electricity,” Pressend said. 

During last year’s Sona, Ramaphosa heeded to complaints about licensing procedures and registration fees, and announced that small-scale generation up to 100MW does not require a licence. The president also announced that municipalities in good financial standing would be able to procure their own electricity from IPPs, bypassing Eskom. 

“So while the government has stipulated that the introduction of IPPS should effectively make electricity cheaper and reduce the risks to the government, the tariff costs for securing the power-purchase agreement with the investor and the service of the IPPs are actually passed onto the consumer through the tariff structure,” Pressend said.  

“So despite the neoliberal assumptions that the private sector will bring greater efficiency by generating cheaper electricity than Eskom, the price of electricity has drastically increased over the past years.” 

Studies on decentralised renewable energy systems of energy, she said, revealed they are “biased in favour of property ownership, for-profit business, and individuals with economic means to shoulder upfront costs associated with ownership, thereby perpetuating the claims of developing local neoliberalism and energy injustice … 

“The situation of addressing climate change and renewable-energy transitions with the current Eskom crisis lends itself to more diverse, just, relational and localised approaches to addressing the energy needs in South Africa,” Pressend added. 

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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