Picture: 123RF/WANG AIZHONG
Picture: 123RF/WANG AIZHONG

During his state of the nation address (Sona), President Cyril Ramaphosa made a big announcement: Eskom has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.        

Many who care about climate change and embracing renewable energy might celebrate this announcement as an ambitious leap into the future. In less than 30 years we will see an Eskom that has gone from being the biggest climate polluter on the continent to taking as much carbon out of the air as it emits.

Compared with Eskom’s past trajectory, this is a major step in the right direction. However, compared with rapid shifts in technology in the energy sector, and the urgency of the climate crisis, Eskom’s new trajectory is arguably already slow and outdated.

First, let us consider the climate crisis. Climate scientists warn that we are already facing dangerous climate change. We are rapidly careening past the vital target of keeping warming to the 1.5°C agreed to under the UN Paris Climate Agreement — a target fought for by all African governments that recognised we are deeply vulnerable to warming beyond it.

As the UN Environmental Programme has shown, if we are to keep warming to 1.5°C, huge change will have to happen not in the next 30 years but within the next decade. By 2030 we will need to have made major progress towards zero emissions. 

This is achievable, as confirmed by numerous energy experts across the globe in a recent statement declaring that “100% renewable electricity supply is possible by 2030, and with substantial political will around the world, 100% renewable energy is also technically and economically feasible across all other sectors by 2035”.

For those who worry about the costs of transitioning to renewable energy so quickly, it is worth considering the costs of not transitioning. Indeed, the costs of staying locked into an outdated polluting paradigm are much higher. 

The price of renewable energy has plummeted over the last decade and is set to continue doing so. Renewable energy is now the cheapest energy source across most of the world, and before long it will make little economic sense to run existing coal- or gas-powered stations.

Economic analysis shows that by 2030, if not before, electricity from new wind or solar plants, including the construction cost, will be cheaper than continuing to operate coal plants worldwide. As such, shutting down coal would save lives and money — money we can invest in a just transition for coal workers, in education, or health care.

SA’s biggest obstacle to embracing this rapid shift lies less with Eskom and more with the department of mineral resources & energy. Under the leadership of minister Gwede Mantashe, the department is pushing a vision of energy from a bygone era of coal, nuclear and fossil gas. 

The department plans our energy future based on the 2019 Integrated Resources Plan (IRP). This is an outdated and rigged electricity vision which forces in new uneconomic coal and nuclear power plants. Meanwhile, it limits renewable energy — inhibiting a vital source of job creation, economic growth and rapidly available electricity desperately needed to tackle load-shedding.  

If we follow the department’s coal, nuclear and gas-heavy pathway we are likely to give birth to stillborn white elephants. The Development Bank of Southern Africa estimates we could waste up to R2-trillion on uneconomic power stations. Already Kusile and Medupi coal power stations have cost us nearly R500bn and are producing some of the world’s most expensive energy. 

In response, Eskom’s CEO has rightly been calling for higher limits on renewable energy in the IRP. He has recognised that Mantashe’s new coal and nuclear dreams are dangerous economic fantasies. Indeed, the IRP represents a stagnant, unchanging vision of energy. It is simply not fit for purpose in our rapidly evolving energy space. 

To break this stagnation, our energy sector needs a transformative vision, not just the baby steps to introduce some renewable energy envisioned in the Sona. Such a transformative vision is what SA’s Climate Justice Coalition has been demanding in its Green New Eskom campaign’s call for a rapid and just transition to a renewable energy future. 

Proving how rapidly change can happen when the government creates a supportive environment, Vietnam managed to construct solar plants equivalent to six coal power stations just last year. Meanwhile, SA’s renewable energy progress has been stifled by government inaction and interference for half a decade, despite the need for new capacity to address load-shedding.

When you add it all up, Mantashe and the department’s energy vision are condemning us to load shedding and economic stagnation for now.  Looking forward, it will worsen the ravages of climate change and pollution, and relegate our economy to increasing irrelevance as the world undergoes revolutionary changes in the energy space. 

We risk being locked into an outdated energy system by an old guard that prefers polluting patronage and economic stagnation over innovation, job creation and transformation. Perhaps it is time our energy sector was led more by youth with a keen eye to the future, given that they will have to live with the consequences of our energy choices. 

• Lenferna, a Mandela Rhodes and Fulbright Scholar who holds a PhD focused on climate and energy from the University of Washington, is a climate justice campaigner with 350Africa.org and serves as secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition. 

PODCAST: A potential game changer in the SA power sector

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