Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

In his response to the debate on his state of the nation address (Sona), President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “If we are a country that prioritises the interests of the poor and the vulnerable, then we need to act with greater urgency to respond to the effects of climate change and make our contribution to preventing it.”

Our national development plan identifies poverty and inequality as “apex” priorities. So how can we reduce inequality and greenhouse gas emissions? How do we respond to the crises facing our country and the planet?

In the past, we have followed a path of energy development that has been built around coal, driven by the interests of the minerals-energy complex that still dominates our country. The use of coal for almost all of our electricity and 30% of our liquid fuel is what has brought us a society with high unemployment. Not only is work on the mines incredibly hard, but jobs for relatively unskilled workers in coal mining and power plants have been declining.

Unemployment drives poverty and inequality. Yet the old mind-set that we must use our "endowment" of coal is persistent. That old thinking will not do for the 21st century. We need to shift our development path from the patterns that have produced high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, and at the same time reduce the dependency on coal that has made us one of the most emissions-intensive countries in the developing world.

Ramaphosa pointed to our nationally determined contribution under the Paris agreement, and the renewable energy independent power producers’ procurement programme (REI4P). Renewable energy is one area where change is dramatic and fast. The costs of building new power plants using wind and solar photovoltaics are significantly lower than building new coal plants. The energy-weighted average cost of renewable has fallen from R2.79 per kWh in the first bid window to 92c. By comparison, the IPP office expects that power from Medupi will be R1.34 per kWh, and we probably do not know the full costs.

The renewable costs are averages, so the winning bids for solar and wind are cheaper still — now below the average cost of supply. We have passed a major tipping point. Renewables are more affordable than coal. So, while the payments for the earlier wind and solar plants do have a cost, the solution lies in building more of the increasingly cheaper technologies. And the emerging industry creates jobs during construction and operation, while employment in coal mining is in decline, both in SA and globally.

Renewable energy development is a key part of reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and inequality. Yet it will not solve either the climate or inequality crisis on its own. Our understanding of how to respond to these twin challenges remains incomplete, but some aspects of what is needed are emerging.

A just transition away from coal and towards renewable energy needs to address the livelihoods of workers and communities dependent on coal. At a societal level, a low carbon economy will create more sustainable livelihoods, but that does not mean an individual worker in a coal plant will find a new job. The challenge of finding a just transition for workers and communities requires urgent attention. The 2018 jobs summit agreed on a presidential climate change co-ordinating commission to oversee a just transition, but little has been heard from it since.

While almost half our greenhouse gas emissions come from coal-fired electricity generation, more than half come from a combination of Sasol’s coal-to-liquid fuels plant, industry and transport. We simply cannot build another Secunda, nor are there plans for a new coal-to-liquid-fuels plant.

So what will fuel our vehicles? Are we willing to shift from driving cars to using public transport?

Some of our cities have bus rapid transit systems, but none has taken the leap New Delhi has, of building a metro or other light rail system. While some industries use relatively little energy, heavy industry such as chemicals, mining, and iron and steel use a lot. Storage technologies such as batteries are being developed, but remain unaffordable even for middle-class South Africans. In all these shifts we need to ensure future energy systems reduce, rather than increase, poverty and inequality. We need to support centres that develop new thinking about these challenges.

The decentralisation of electricity systems in the future will shift political power. Once consumers generate some of their own power (and become "prosumers"), the relationship with Eskom or the municipal distributor will change. We need to re-imagine the role and identity of municipal distributors. Given the emergent nature of energy transitions, modelling uncertainty and understanding risk is critical. Which coalitions of actors might support or oppose the energy transition, and why?

Understanding how change happens is more important than shifts in technology. We need agents of change to drive our energy system from the ground up. Initiatives such as energy democracy are critical to our future.

The skills we teach our children should equip them for new livelihoods and low-emissions lifestyles. Key skills are complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. These are the skills that enable adaptive management of complex systems.

Most fundamentally, we need a new social contract, in which the rich live better with less, the poor are lifted out of poverty, and middle-class aspirations shift from having more to living well.

• Winkler works at the University of Cape Town's Energy Research Centre. He writes in his personal capacity. This article draws on work published in the SA Journal of Science.