We need to talk about South Africa’s 2050 Net Zero Carbon Emission Deadline

South Africa is the 12th-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world and the worst sulphur dioxide polluter on the planet – surpassing the combined emissions of the US and China. Our emission status can largely be attributed to our reliance on coal to produce almost 80% of our electricity. Yet we have met the Paris Agreement’s call for countries to set out long-term climate strategies by agreeing that we’ll achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. In the face of such an overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels for energy production, just how feasible is that goal?

The deadline is 28 years away, but, for the sake of timeline comparison, load shedding has been with us for 15 years already. In the mining industry - which is responsible for producing the coal on which we currently rely to power the country - mine lifetimes are calculated in decades, so 28 years is the blink of an eye in terms of their projections.

Mining accounts for 1.2% of the country’s GDP – and coal mining is responsible for the lion’s share of that – so moving away from ‘dirty power’ and replacing it with renewable energy needs to be managed intelligently. That’s where the Just Energy Transition Partnership agreement we signed with the European Union, Germany, France, the UK and the US to support our climate action goals at COP26 comes in. The R131 billion pledge to help finance the move to cleaner and renewable energy sources takes the form of grants, concessional loans and investment and risk-sharing instruments, including mobilising private sector funding. Crucially, in an economy with such a high unemployment rate, the funding will be used to ensure coal communities and workers are supported as we aim to help prevent up to 1.5 gigatonnes of emissions over the next 20 years.

That is a lot of money – but when you consider that Eskom is nearly R400 billion in the red, it shows you the scale of the task we face. We have to wean ourselves off Eskom while trying to continue to fund Eskom; develop new green sectors like electric vehicles, green hydrogen and train and retrain hundreds of thousands of people who will be affected by cutting our reliance on coal. In the space of 28 years, not to forget need to repurpose the use of these sites

Government has a huge part to play in this transition. We can’t expect foreign countries to continue to fund our transition – the Just Transition financing is a nod to our status amongst the world’s worst greenhouse gas polluters, recognising that our output doesn’t just affect our environment, but the global environment, too. The Government has indicated its intent to adopt greener solutions – the Presidential Climate Commission being one - but the stance is somewhat compromised by the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy’s assurances to the mining industry that coal still has a major role to play in powering the country which practically it does.

The policy shift to allow independent companies to establish their own renewable power plants to produce up to 100MW of electricity has been embraced, particularly by the mining industry. It looks good on their sustainability report and helps them continue to operate when Eskom falters. The Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) has procured a total of 6 329 MW of renewable energy to date – though just 3 876 MW are currently connected to the grid. The sixth bid window is now open and is looking to add 2 600MW. So let’s say that, optimistically, all of that sustainable production comes online next year – that’s 8 929 MW by 2023, when the country needs just shy of 60 000 MW to function. ‘Thermal ’– read ‘coal’ production - is responsible for just over 48 000 MW of that production. We still have a long way to go.
Coal miners need to play their part in the transition too - but we can’t simply ask them to stop producing coal. Indeed, as long as the country is reliant on Eskom’s fleet of coal plants, they’ll need to continue to operate to meet that demand. It’s going to be down to public/private partnerships to introduce initiatives that help coal mines transition to producing alternative energy, while they continue to meet Eskom’s demand. The two areas of operation will equalise over time and renewables will start to become more of a focus as we get the transition right. The land that they operate on can then be repurposed for other activities. That’s going to require a REIPPPP-type program, with incentives.

The 100 000 people employed by the coal mining industry will need support to transition and acquire new skills in the green space. The narrative amongst employees at coal mines is that their livelihood is being phased out – but that’s because of poor communication on the part of Government and the companies who employ them. By properly outlining a plan that will help the country meet the 2050 goal, Government can assure employees of their futures.

There also needs to be incentives for private households, which Government brooked and then pulled back on. There’s got to be an incentive for private homeowners when they’re looking to install solar power systems to reduce the load on Eskom, because it’s currently such a costly exercise. Whether it’s encouraging banks to fund these sorts of installations at reduced rates or having the Government intervene directly, there’s plenty of space for households to make an impact in reducing demand.

As private individuals, we also need to review our love affair with owning our own vehicles. South Africans love their cars – but that’s principally because we don’t have safe and effective mass transport solutions. Families own multiple vehicles which are, more often than not, driven by individuals. Each vehicle contributes to congestion on the roads and that congestion increases carbon dioxide emission levels.

Vehicle manufacturing in SA made up 2.6% of the country’s GDP in 2020 – more than double the mining industry’s contribution – which was largely due to exports. We only produce fossil fuel-burning vehicles, though, so as the countries to which those vehicles are exported make moves to reduce emissions by promoting electric vehicles, we place that industry in tremendous peril. By not producing electric vehicles for local use – and slapping a ridiculous 25% tax on their import when fossil fuel vehicles are only taxed at 18% - Government isn’t providing a single convincing reason for motorists to switch to EV’s.

So, faced with a challenge that looks insurmountable, how achievable is that 2050 goal? The coal miners aren’t going to voluntarily put their hands up and say they’re going to shift into other areas. Eskom can’t simply stop producing power to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s going to take Intelligent, swift action, better communication and clear targets and milestones building up to 2050- from Government. Private sector companies can make their own contributions if they’re incentivised to do so. Individual households can contribute, if they’re given the opportunity. The effects of global warming are becoming more and more visible, so best we start putting serious plans in place to meet the deadline before climate events like the excessive rains in KZN over the last few months become the norm – but on a global scale.

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