Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUPPLIED
Gwede Mantashe. Picture: SUPPLIED

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in mid-August should have captured local headlines for a week given its grave implications for the country.

The report highlights the danger of mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe’s obstinate support for natural gas as a growth industry for SA (“Mantashe, the fossil fuel dinosaur, holds our future in his hands”, June 17). If ever SA convenes a tribunal for climate crimes, Mantashe may be one of the leading candidates for prosecution.

I realise that prosecution of a government minister by a climate tribunal may sound like an improbable scenario to most SA ears, but I am not suggesting it as a rhetorical device. Governments around the world are increasingly being taken to court by their citizens, and losing, over their failure to act with sufficient urgency to cut global heating emissions.

SA leaders do have a certain amount of reverence for the World Economic Forum, which publishes the global Energy Transition index. This assesses progress towards sustainable and affordable energy, in which SA’s energy sector, under Mantashe’s dismal mismanagement, has been ranked 110 out of 115 countries.

One of his key climate crimes is his promotion of gas as a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables. This is in defiance of economic logic; the geophysical necessities of stabilising the climate; and SA’s existing international commitments to emissions cuts.

Mantashe’s strategy is like saying we should upgrade from landlines to a 2005 Blackberry, when the obvious choice is a modern smartphone. The smartphone that is now available to us is renewables and storage, and the space for a “smartphone strategy” is clear.

A recent International Energy Agency report stated that “for emerging economies heavily dependent on coal power generation ... the bulk of their transition will be straight from coal to clean energy” — not from fossil coal to fossil gas.

We can see that recommendation in action right now at Eskom, which is replacing the Komati coal power station not with gas but with solar and battery storage.

Meanwhile, the authors of the IPCC report are clear that one of our greatest opportunities for quick steps to averting catastrophic climate change lies in global slashing of methane emissions.

Methane has more than 80 times the greenhouse warming potential of carbon dioxide (and persists in the atmosphere for 10 years, after which it turns into carbon dioxide). The bottom line: methane is a transition towards even greater climate disaster than carbon dioxide.

Business Day recently reported that a Gauteng Day Zero — in which the taps in our economic powerhouse region run dry — is SA’s biggest climate risk in the near future, according to Wits scientists who contributed to the IPCC report.

These scientists said they expect this scenario to happen in the next two decades (just as other scientists warned of Cape Town’s own drought crisis). It is probably already too late to avert a Gauteng Day Zero, and the government should be planning for this eventuality now, but it is not too late to stop it becoming a regular occurrence.

Climate change does not make frequent headlines in SA because our elites are mostly too well insulated from the disasters afflicting farmers and the poor in rural communities. Yet it already accounts for many of the challenges we are facing and is going to amplify them all, from drought to food insecurity, deepening unemployment and poverty, and forced mass migration from across the continent to our already overstretched cities.

The silver lining is that we can still avert the most catastrophic potential impacts if all of us — the government, business, civil society and individuals — heed the advice of respected scientists.

Natural gas does produce less carbon than coal at the point of combustion, which has led the oil and gas industry to claim gas is a “low-carbon transition” or “bridge” fuel.

But natural gas is mostly methane (70%-95%), and there are usually leaks in pipeline and supply infrastructure. The warming effect of this “fugitive methane” unfortunately mostly outweighs the lower-carbon characteristics of natural gas, making it worse than coal in many instances.

There is also far more natural gas in resource reserve than can now be safely added to the atmosphere, and building new gas infrastructure crowds out the renewables that are now the only sane option for our energy systems.

Mantashe and other cheerleaders for SA’s gas industry, such as PetroSA chief Phindile Masangane, apparently do not understand that greenhouse gases do not magically become less harmful when emitted with the noble intention (we are told) of creating jobs (“SA’s road to net zero emissions will be via gas”, September 5). Excess atmospheric carbon always has a cost. Our methane emissions cause at least R54bn in damage annually, no less serious for being globally distributed.

Durwood Zaelke, a lead reviewer for the IPCC, is quoted in international news reports as saying cutting methane emissions is probably the only way of avoiding the (incalculably more expensive) climate “tipping points” likely from world temperature rises of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels.

Most of SA’s natural gas supply comes from Mozambique, a country roughly twice as corrupt as our own, according to Transparency International. We do Mozambicans no favours by purchasing their gas. It is not an accelerant of economic progress for ordinary Mozambicans, but rather a textbook instance of the resource curse, “the phenomenon of countries with an abundance of natural resources having less economic growth, less democracy, or worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources”.

It is time for Mantashe to wake up to the scientific evidence, remember his constitutional obligations to human rights, and shift his attention from coal and gas towards renewable energy as a matter of urgency. The effect of clinging to fossil fuels is to make a few people rich while making everyone else poorer. It’s time Mantashe embraced an energy policy for everyone.

• Le Page is co-ordinator of Fossil Free SA, part of the #uprootthedmre campaign that starts September 22.

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