The report showed how the energy sector must transform to give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to within the vital target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, agreed to under the UN Paris Climate Agreement. It concluded basically that the world should not build any new polluting fossil fuel infrastructure.
By 2040 the world’s electricity supply must be renewable and zero carbon. The good news is that such a pathway would not only help stem the climate crisis. It would also cut energy costs, “create millions of new jobs, significantly lift global economic growth, and achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking worldwide by the end of the decade”. It’s a potential double win-win situation.
On the same day, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe gave a press conference seemingly from a different universe. In it, he laid out how the future of South Africa is one which sees massive expansions of new oil and gas, as well as the building of new uneconomic coal power plants.
Mantashe admitted that in “an alternative universe” we would be rapidly moving away from fossil fuels. Such a statement makes one wonder what universe Mantashe thinks he is living in, as his energy strategy seems to be a double lose-lose situation. It is a vision divorced from the realities of climate change, shifting energy economics and human rights.
What Mantashe’s alternate reality means for us
When it comes to climate change, the IEA’s report has made abundantly clear what climate scientists and activists have long argued. We need to be urgently moving away from fossil fuels to avoid locking in some of the most devastating impacts of climate change.
Seemingly oblivious to this reality and the immense suffering climate change is causing, Mantashe is pushing forward a fossil fuel heavy vision of the future. Not only will it lock in further climate chaos, it will also further pollute our already deeply polluted air, water and soil.
On the economics front, the rapid shifts in technology over the last decade have fundamentally altered the energy landscape. Renewable energy is now by far South Africa’s most affordable energy source as well as the fastest way to address loadshedding and the most prolific way to create jobs in the energy sector.
Denying this reality and the responsibility to address the energy crisis, Mantashe’s energy plans are all about constraining renewable energy, rather than unlocking it. For years the department of mineral resources and energy has stifled renewable energy through red tape, delays, bureaucracy and sabotage.
Consider the Integrated Resources Plan of 2019, which determines South Africa’s future energy mix. It deliberately constrained renewable energy in order to force in new coal plants that even its own economic models showed to be uneconomic relative to renewables. It also locks us into lots of new risky gas.
Then, of course, there is the corrupted tender process that gave us the expensive and polluting powerships programme. The process was deeply flawed and seems blatantly corrupt. It was patently rigged and rerigged in order to favour powerships over renewables. The result is a disastrous R200-billion contract which could lock us into expensive and polluting energy for 20 years.
In the words of IEA executive director Fatih Birol, our changing energy reality makes it such that putting new money into fossil fuel would likely be “junk investments”. Yet, Mantashe is trying to make South Africa’s economy more and more reliant on such junk investments by driving a massive new oil, gas and coal expansion.
When it comes to human rights, it is important to remember that Mantashe is pushing through this expensive and polluting energy agenda often in violation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In particular, he violates the right for peoples across the world to have free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) over projects that will affect them.
Denying this international legal reality, Mantashe and his department have been fighting against FPIC in the courts and denying it in practice. Instead of free prior and informed consent, communities who resist polluting projects are often met with violence, coercion and corruption as was painfully demonstrated last year by the murder of Fikile Ntshangase.
Stopping South Africa being left behind
When we add this all up what we see is a dangerously outdated and harmful energy agenda. It’s not clear whether Mantashe is pursuing it because he is living in some alternative reality. Or alternatively whether he is simply corruptly denying what he knows is reality in order to benefit the few at the expense of the many. I am not sure which one is worse.
Either way, the result is that the World Economic Forum ranks South Africa as one of the world’s worst countries in terms of our readiness to adapt to the rapidly shifting energy space. We risk being left behind as the global energy system undergoes one of its fastest ever revolutions.
If South Africa is to stand any chance in having an energy system that is competitive, serves the people, and allows our country to prosper, then it’s time we overhauled the energy department. We need to remove Mantashe and the rest of the corrupted old guard who prefer polluting patronage and economic stagnation over desperately needed innovation, job creation and transformation.
We know from the saga of suspended ANC secretary general Ace Magashule that those benefiting off of corrupted tenders will not step aside easily – and the energy sector is probably the biggest cash cow. That is why, after the anticipated third wave of covid-19, the Climate Justice Coalition is calling for a nationwide mass mobilisation against Minister Mantashe and the DMRE’s harmful energy agenda.
If we are to avoid being condemned to deepening climate chaos and decades of more energy dysfunction, we must act before it is too late.