Wind turbines at Kouga Wind Farm at Oyster Bay in the Eastern Cape. File picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Wind turbines at Kouga Wind Farm at Oyster Bay in the Eastern Cape. File picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The cabinet could make a game-changing decision in the next few days that would resonate around the world when announced at the UN on September 23.

That is if our president accepts the challenge of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres to bring more ambitious plans to the Climate Action Summit.

Guterres has challenged world leaders to table long-term strategies to become carbon neutral and, most explicitly, to commit to no new coal-fired power plants.

Our national troubles are such that a special summit of the UN general assembly may seem an inappropriate focus for attention, but SA is one of the half dozen countries that are being most closely scrutinised for decisive action on mitigation — the reduction or limiting of greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the scrutiny is concerned less with our prevailing moral turpitude than it is with the risks and long-term sustainability of investment opportunities.

In the coming days the SA cabinet is expected to pronounce on the integrated resource plan (IRP) for electricity supply that it has received, along with a report by the National Economic Development and Labour Affairs Council (Nedlac).

Concerns expressed in the report include the IRP commitment to two new coal-fired power plants — a total provision of 1,500MW spread over 2023 and 2027 — that are unlikely to materialise, at least on the basis of the independent power producer (IPP) projects that prompted their inclusion in the plan. Outside the strictures of Nedlac there are calls to replace the provision for new coal with renewables and some storage (or gas), consistent with least-cost supply scenarios modelled for the IRP and more recent research.

On the face of it a straightforward technocratic decision, one some stakeholders see as simply accepting the inevitable, cabinet agreement on an IRP without new coal-fired plant would be a political landmark. While it has no downside from an energy and investment planning perspective and the net socioeconomic affect would be positive (even without consideration of the climate crisis), commentators generally agree it is improbable; that any political will to break from our energy path dependence is outweighed by the dogged attachment of many high in the governing party and its union allies.

Key political players refuse to distinguish the prospects for coal, or its merits, from the future of mining in general, despite the Energy Intensive Users Group supporting a decisive shift to renewable energy to limit electricity price increases. Workers and communities dependent on the coal-fired power value chains are justifiably concerned about the immediate and local effects of a changing primary energy mix, but such socioeconomic challenges (illustrated in the decline of gold mining) must be addressed with urgency regardless of the fate of the proposed IPP coal-fired plants.

Removing the provision for 1,500MW of new coal generation from the IRP will not dramatically hasten the decline of SA’s coal industry, nor affect the viability of existing mines. The net effect on employment will be positive, provided the state starts driving localisation of renewable energy technology manufacturing, as it has often promised to do.

The prospects for domestic thermal coal sales hinge primarily on whether Eskom can stop losing money burning it in its existing (and mostly-built) coal-fired plants, which is in turn affected by how much more local pollution South Africans will tolerate. It is an assumption of the IRP that Eskom will be allowed to continue hugely exceeding air-quality standards.

Without an executive decision, the opportunity to improve the IRP would pass to parliament, where much of the debate on our electricity system is egregiously ill-informed and dominated by short-term interests. We would miss a an opportunity to attract responsible investment in our debt-crippled electricity supply system, as well as to give substance to our rhetoric on climate action and to catalyse similar resolve internationally.

There will be no more opportune time to be decisive and strategic, both as a country demanding more international support to increase our mitigation efforts, as recently emphasised at a meeting of the Basic (Brazil, SA, India and China) group, and in SA’s current capacity leading the AU on climate change.

Our IRP process is being watched internationally, not only for consistency with our professed aspiration to keep global heating from exceeding an average of 1.5°C, but also as a litmus test for decision-making capacity in the face of vested interests, and of prospects for clean-energy development.

The upcoming summit will lead world news, and mere rhetorical embrace of a “just transition” will not suffice. A promise to increase mitigation ambition in 2020, with plans such as expanding and electrifying public transport and establishing better residential building codes, might earn our president a turn at the podium, but it won’t signal the shift in political will that Guterres is seeking globally.

SA not building new coal-fired power plants will not impose any public burden or sacrifice. A commitment to this effect will highlight the urgent need for responsible transition planning and targeted government support for those low on the coal value chain, but not make this more difficult, or onerous.

It could be one small step for SA, and one that attests we are serious about attracting green finance.

• Worthington is a project manager for the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung nongovernmental organisation. He writes in his personal capacity