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Opinion: Is the just energy transition affordable in South Africa?

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and the author of the book Leadership lessons from the books I have read. He is on Twitter at @txm1971. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick: 22 February 2022.

Two weeks ago, I buried my father, a celebrated mathematics teacher. Following a host of our customs, we had to go and pick his body from the mortuary. In order to do this, we had to travel through the Punda Maria Road that goes all the way to the Punda Maria Gate at the Kruger National Park. As we approached the Maniini Village, where the MTG Mortuary is located, we came across a dead end right in the commercially busy Punda Maria Road. Confused, we turned back to navigate the back roads to rejoin the Punda Maria Gate. The signage signalling this back road was non-existent. In the end, we added 3km to our trip. Reflecting on the mathematical lessons I received from my father’s classes, I started calculating how much petrol road users waste because of this road barrier per day and how much this contributes to our carbon footprint.

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Professor Tshilidzi Marwala

When I inquired why there was a barrier, I was told that the bridge collapsed at the beginning of last year and has not yet been fixed. Due to this inefficiency, the cost to tourism and our environment is incalculable. The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 aims for affordable and clean energy. The responsible move from a high carbon economy to a low carbon economy is called the ‘just transition’. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “A just transition ensures environmental sustainability as well as decent work, social inclusion and poverty eradication”. South Africa has been offered R131 billion funding to enable this just transition. Domestic and international financial institutions have decided not to fund high carbon projects, such as coal projects.

The international community is divided into groups primarily in the West, which advocate for a mitigation strategy, and those countries, primarily in Africa and Asia, supporting adaptation. Mitigation is a strategy where carbon emission sources are stopped through various interventions. An example of this is to close coal power stations to reduce carbon emissions. Adaptation involves dealing with the outcome of carbon emissions. An example of this is to bury emitted carbon dioxide in mines to deal with climate change. South Africa has just built the Kusile and Medupi coal power stations at an inflated cost of R450 billion. Do we close these power stations before their lifecycles run out?

South Africa has an estimated 35 billion tons of coal reserves and is thus ranked 8th, constituting 3% of the total world coal reserves. This means that we could use these reserves for the next 173 years at our current rate of coal consumption. Furthermore, South Africa ranks 7th in the world regarding coal consumption and exports 30% of its coal production. This means for South Africa; coal is big business. Given these factors, what are the just transition’s financial implications for Africa? Should Africa alone bear the economic cost, given that rich Western nations acquired their wealth by polluting the world unchecked? Are there mitigation and adaptation strategies that can be implemented to manage this just transition?

Clean coal technology enhances the efficiency and minimizes the environmental impact of handling, extracting and the use of coal. This is, in effect, an adaptation strategy. There are three types of clean coal technology that exist: pre-combustion, post-combustion, and oxy-fuel combustion. Pre-combustion technology is a technology that works before the coal is burned. One example of this is gasification, a process that converts fossil-based carbonaceous materials at high temperatures and removes carbon dioxide. The post-combustion technology is the capture of carbon dioxide after coal has been burned. Oxy-fuel combustion includes a technology developed in China where coal is burned with other fuels to increase burning efficiency and reduce carbon emissions.

While clean coal technology can be classified as part of the supply side management of carbon emissions, we can also deal with the demand side to achieve just transition. One step in this endeavour is to reduce the number of cars on our roads. It is reported that the N1 highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria carries 180,000 vehicles per day. The amount of carbon emission is approximately 7,200kg per day if we assume that an average car in South Africa emits 145g/km. With an average vehicle occupancy rate of 1.4 passengers per car, we can reduce the carbon emission by half by doubling the vehicle occupancy rate by mechanisms such as car-sharing.

The other demand-side management intervention is to abolish all plastics in South Africa. There are successful examples of this on the continent. For instance, in Rwanda, all forms of plastics are banned. Globally the use of plastic is growing at a rate of 3.75% per year, and it is reported that if it were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. As an intermediate step, we need to recycle plastics, but they should be banned altogether and replaced by other eco-friendly substitutes in the long term. The buy-in for this is certainly there. Just this week, a poll published by Reuters and IPSOS found that three-quarters of the world population wants to ban single-use plastics. Additionally, 85% of those surveyed say that manufacturers and retailers should “be held responsible” for reducing the impact of plastic waste.

To contribute towards a just transition, we also need to use energy responsibly. We should use energy-efficient appliances such as LED lights and switch off electrical points when not in use. The phenomenon of having some street lights on during the day and off during the night must end. Geysers must be switched off when not needed. For example, there is no need to leave the geyser on when an entire household has gone on a vacation.

Uj Solar Panels
Solar panels on UJ’s Auckland Park campus

We should also encourage distributed generation, allowing private and public players to generate their own electricity. One example of distributed generation is solar energy. We should gradually increase the use of solar energy. For instance, at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which has 60,000 staff members and students, installing solar infrastructure has resulted in 15% of the energy consumption coming from solar energy. The payback time, which is the time required for the energy savings to exceed the installation cost, is three years.

Given the enormous cost of just transition, who should fund it? The beneficiaries of the unchecked carbon emission that have led us to climate change with existential consequences should pay for it. At the centre of Africa’s demands, for instance, has been a call for greater funding from the West. Yet, as the former head of Greenpeace and ex-secretary general of Amnesty International Kumi Naidoo put it just prior to COP26 last year, “Let’s just be clear, rich countries’ governments make announcements of financial support, as it did for the 100 million dollars a year for the Green Climate Fund by 2020, which they’ve not delivered. So, let’s see whether that money actually flows. And we need to be vigilant to make sure that those nations actually follow through with that commitment.”

The latest call is for a mega-financing deal that would channel $700bn annually from 2025 to aid developing countries adapt to the climate crisis. As the Guardian journalist Jonathan Watts commented, “African nations insist wealthy countries are held as rigorously to account on their finance promises as they are on emissions reductions. That means regular reporting on the levels of support provided, needed and received.” The commitments that have been made so far are far from adequate. If we do not manage this well, just transition might result in widespread hunger, especially in the global South. At the same time, we should note that the just transition is not an option we can afford to avoid. We should also find an optimal energy mix that will minimize climate change. Much more can be done, and we have to begin actively exploring these avenues. The reality is that this is not a problem that is confined to a country or even an institution but is a global challenge. Every sector needs to reflect on how best contributions can be made to avert the impending crisis.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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