/ 7 April 2024

Activists say draft electricity plan will deepen energy poverty

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A solar panel is installed on the roof of a mud hut in Qhaka, a village near Port St Johns. Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

The government’s draft blueprint to tackle the energy crisis in South Africa supports substantial fossil fuel-based generation that is likely to worsen energy poverty and must be rejected, according to the Life After Coal campaign.

This is contained in their comments on the draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) 2023, which the campaign, together with Black Girls Rising, was recently submitted to the department of mineral resources and energy

According to their submission, by failing to lay out, motivate and adopt a clear least-cost pathway, and by not accounting for the costs of externalities “and thereby overlooking the hidden costs in a fossil fuel heavy generation mix”, the IRP 2023 will exacerbate energy poverty.

“Expensive electricity hampers development, and affects the poorest people in society the most,” the groups said, emphasising, too, that expensive and economically risky technologies, such as extensive gas-to-power, are not necessary. The campaign is a joint environmental justice campaign by Earthlife Africa, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights

‘Not fit for purpose’

The draft IRP 2023 is not a fit-for-purpose electricity resource plan. “It does not align with a just transition, and fails to meet the fundamental needs of ensuring a reliable electricity delivery system at least cost and per, inter alia, the constitution and the Bill of Rights,” they said.

As an exercise of public power, the adoption of an IRP is subject to the principle of legality. “As such an IRP 2023 must be rationally connected to its purpose, it must not contravene any section of the constitution or relevant legislation, and it must be subject to reasonable public participation as demanded by the circumstances.”

On these bases, they said, the IRP 2023 is vulnerable to challenges based on the “failure to meet the necessary standards of legality”.

Flaws, scepticism

Their submission highlights “fundamental flaws and scepticism” in the plan’s ability to ensure affordable electricity supply, energy security and upholding the constitutional right to a healthy environment. 

“The delayed decommissioning of an unreliable existing coal fleet perpetuates the costly and dangerous health crisis caused by deadly air pollution from coal-fired power,” they said, noting that the plan fails to account openly for the costs of these related effects. In 2023, Eskom stated that its coal pollution kills more than 300 South Africans a year. Additionally, 32 000 South Africans could die if the country does not transition to a more sustainable pathway

The notion that the energy plan envisages new coal in its long-term outlook, falsely relies on unproven technology to capture carbon emissions in the pursuit of so-called clean coal, “a myth supported by fossil fuel interests”. 

Engagement with the public has been exceptionally poor in this process, with short commenting periods, and only two online public engagements. “In addition, the provision  of underlying information has been limited and there are few explanations or available calculations to motivate the choices that the IRP claims to prefer.”

Climate effects

The submission described how the government has confirmed South Africa’s extreme vulnerability to the effects of climate change. These will largely be felt through significant warming (as high as 5°C to 8°C, over the interior by the end of this century); effects on water resources, such as decreased water availability; and a higher frequency of natural disasters. 

The groups noted that the effects of drought, extreme weather events, and fires in South Africa have cost the country billions. “Virtually every province in the country has recently experienced, or is currently experiencing, severe, extended drought. 

“The impacts of climate change are crippling livelihoods and jobs, and will have long-term impacts on food security, food prices, human settlements, and health. Government is having to subsidise these high costs, and will increasingly have to do so.” 

These effects will be exacerbated by a decision to expand or extend the use of fossil fuels for electricity production, the groups argued.

Protect people against these effects

South Africa has already experienced more warming than the rest of the world. From 1931 to 2015, western parts of South Africa, including much of the western and Northern Cape, and also in the east over Gauteng, Limpopo and the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, warmed by 2°C/century or even higher — in the order of twice the global rate of temperature increase. 

“This trend is predicted to continue, with resulting increases in extreme heatwaves, drought, water and food insecurity, wildfires, storms and flooding, sea level, and vector-borne diseases already underway.” 

It is the constitutional imperative of the government to ensure that people in South Africa are protected against these effects — that their rights enshrined in the constitution are upheld and protected. 

“There is no justifiable basis on which the rights to life, dignity, and an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing could be limited by plans to develop further fossil fuel capacity, where less harmful alternatives are available. Further, economic development and sustainable livelihoods will be compromised in a country devastated by the effects of climate change.” 

In the next 10 years, significant ambition is needed to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the necessary trajectory range and to get South Africa where it needs to be to avoid the worst effects of the climate crisis. 

Doing this requires a commitment to phase out existing fossil fuels and halt new fossil fuel investment as soon as possible “and certainly to refrain from locking-in to new fossil fuel infrastructure, which is not needed”.

But despite available science, evidence of harms and the incontrovertible acknowledgement by the government of the country’s exposure to the harms of climate change, the draft IRP inclusion of fossil fuels, “in the manner it has done so, is in contradiction to the just transition and climate response imperative. 

“We submit that it is both unreasonable and irrational, in addition to posing a substantial threat to the constitutional rights of the people of South Africa.”