Those who follow the antics of the minister of mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, know that last year he was on a crusade to resist the “imperialist” energy agenda of the West. His anti-imperialist quest came in response to the R130-billion climate finance deal that his own party and president had worked to secure at the United Nations Climate Conference in Scotland in November last year.
In a turn of face, Mantashe has gone from saying we must resist the West’s energy agenda to saying we must embrace it, or at least the parts he likes. At a national energy dialogue in February this year, Mantashe said we must follow Europe’s lead when it comes to gas, because South Africa is an “encircled economy” and cannot direct its energy agenda in isolation.
This new embrace of European leadership was inspired by the fact that oil and gas lobbyists had successfully managed to get the European Union to classify gas as a transition fuel in their green taxonomy, under specific conditions. That classification came despite much protest from researchers, the public and activists in Europe who point out that gas is a highly polluting fossil fuel and should not be classified as green.
Mantashe was eager to jump on the European bandwagon and argue that South Africa must follow their example and build new gas. He seemed not to notice the hypocrisy that just a few months prior he had been railing against the West’s energy agenda as something to resist.
That hypocrisy is not only disingenuous, It is also dangerous to people, the environment, and South Africa’s economy. To focus on the economy, if Mantashe was really worried about how “encircled” South Africa is, then he should be worried about the fact that our largest trading partner, the EU, is among a host of countries in the process of levying carbon border adjustment tariffs to penalise economies if their exports are heavily polluting.
Thanks in no small part to the policies of the mineral resources and energy department, South Africa remains one of the most polluting, carbon-intensive countries in the world. When measured by the amount of pollution per unit of GDP terms, we rank behind only a handful of countries such as Turkmenistan, Palau and Mongolia. That puts us in a deeply vulnerable position to carbon border adjustment tariffs, particularly if Mantashe’s department gets its way with building new coal and gas.
Another economic worry that should be at the forefront of our energy minister’s mind, is that over the past few months, Europe’s reliance on gas for energy was sending energy prices skyrocketing and pushing households into energy poverty. Oil and gas corporations such as Shell, BP and Exxon, on the other hand, made record profits off the soaring prices. They raked in the money, profiteering off deepening despair and energy poverty.
In response to rising gas prices and Russia invading Ukraine, the EU is making plans to accelerate their transition away from gas to renewable energy. In the words of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen: “We are doubling down on renewables. This will increase Europe’s strategic independence on energy.” That’s exactly the opposite direction that Mantashe’s department wants to take us in. Their gas masterplan dreams of gas powering cars, taxis, homes, power stations, appliances and more.
The department’s response to the current global energy crisis is to argue that we must extract our own oil and gas to reduce foreign reliance. Such a misguided response misses the fact that oil and gas prices are tied to international markets, even if they are produced locally. So domestic production would still not shield us from volatile oil and gas markets. What would be immune is the electricity we produce from the sun and the wind in our own backyard.
According to a recent Oxford University report, thanks to the huge declines in the cost of renewable energy, the most affordable energy future is to decarbonise the entire global energy sector within the next 25 years. The results show that even if you take climate change or environmental concerns out of the picture, it makes economic sense to transition to powering our economy on renewables.
Of course, we shouldn’t be taking climate change out of the picture. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report made clear that the climate crisis is already having devastating effects across the world. If we want to avoid those impacts deepening and spiralling out of control, then a guiding light must be to move away from polluting coal, oil and gas as rapidly as possible.
Imagine that instead of polluting our air, soil, and water to enrich foreign multinational corporations such as Shell, Total and Eni, we instead focused our energies on harnessing the power of the sun and wind, and ensuring the green industrialisation of South Africa. The evidence shows that in comparison to the fossil-fuelled status quo, it could create hundreds of thousands more jobs, grow the economy and drive more inclusive development.
Mantashe’s department wants us to believe that it is driving a renewable energy future. It constantly trumpets the fact that renewable energy is the biggest portion of South Africa’s proposed new energy mix under the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) of 2019. What is not mentioned is that renewable energy is being built 10 times slower than is needed to meet South Africa’s (arguably insufficient) climate goals, even according to the oil and gas friendly National Business Initiative.
Mantashe has also said that he plans to update the IRP. Not to unlock more renewables, which are constrained under the IRP 2019 to force in more expensive and polluting coal and gas, but to update it to include even more gas and nuclear. Doing so threatens to lock us into uneconomic gas infrastructure at precisely the moment the world is turning away from it. It threatens to make our energy more expensive, our economy less competitive and our planet more polluted.
Mantashe’s department is taking us on a dangerous pathway, which threatens our economy, our environment and the well-being of our people. That is why the Climate Justice Coalition is demanding that Mantashe be replaced and the department transformed.
With Mantashe now undermining the Zondo state capture commission to avoid accountability for corruption, it couldn’t be clearer that he must be replaced so the department is led by someone suited for the 21st century.
This article was first published by Mail & Guardian.