This is an open letter to COSATU written on behalf of the Climate Justice Coalition, a coalition of South African labour, social, health, environmental, human rights and climate justice civil society organisations. We are writing this letter to provide both praise and critique of COSATU’s proposal to fix Eskom. While there is much to discuss about the proposal, this letter focuses only on questions of climate justice.
As we outline below, we see the COSATU proposal as being an encouraging step forward towards a just transition to renewable energy and we welcome working with COSATU to push forward certain elements of it. However, from a climate justice perspective, we have significant worries about other elements of the proposal, such as its advocacy for expensive and polluting new coal and fossil gas. If those worries are not addressed, then we cannot fully endorse the proposal on the grounds of climate justice.
By way of background, COSATU has put forward a proposal to address the Eskom crisis through creating a special purpose vehicle funded by the Public Investment Corporation and development finance institutions like the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Industrial Development Corporation. The finance vehicle would both fund a just transition to renewable energy and help reduce Eskom’s debt from its staggering R454-billion to a more sustainable level of R200-billion. Below we outline the good and the bad of the proposal.
From a climate justice perspective there is a lot to celebrate. For too long Eskom has been wedded to coal, making it the biggest polluter on the entire continent. COSATU is calling for a new Eskom, and for their generation mandate to be expanded by the Minister to allow it to produce its own renewable energy generation capacity. They are also calling for relevant investment in battery storage to support renewable energy to begin.
In addition to Eskom leading on renewables, COSATU are also calling for worker and community owned generation capacity to be increased. They are also calling for targeted public and private investments to produce renewable energy technology locally and in particular in provinces where workers and communities are at risk from the shift away from coal. Priority would go to provinces like Mpumalanga and Limpopo who would be most impacted in the transition given their heavy dependence on coal.
Another major step forward is to require that all buildings should be required to install locally produced solar panels over a 5-year period. Doing so will reduce pressure on Eskom, and lower carbon footprints, consumer and industry electricity bills, and boost locally produced solar panels. COSATU proposes, furthermore, that indigent households and small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) should qualify for subsidies or rebates for the installation of solar panels. Their support of indigent households also goes further, arguing that the free electricity allocation to indigent households should be increased. From a pro-poor perspective, this is all a welcome development.
To ensure the transition to renewable energy does not hurt those dependent on the coal industry, a key provision within the proposal is ensuring that there is a just transition for workers and communities who will be affected by the transition. Not just workers but families, businesses, and communities are reliant on the income and job creation provided by the coal industry. To avoid adding to South Africa’s unemployment crisis, a just transition plan would be put in place to protect and invest in these workers and communities.
Another positive proposal by COSATU is the development and implementation of electric vehicle production domestically “to protect the auto-manufacturing sector, create new jobs, exceed climate change targets but also to provide a mass sustainable demand base for Eskom”. This is a welcome development and should be coupled with major nation-wide investments, incentives and infrastructure development to support sustainable mass electric transit in the form of electric busses, taxis, and trains.
On the negative side for the climate, COSATU’s proposal calls for extending the lifespan of existing coal power stations by converting them to fossil gas where possible. This proposal is problematic from both an environmental and an economic standpoint. From an economic standpoint, renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy available in South Africa.
Renewables are becoming so cheap, that even in the United States, where fossil gas is cheapest globally, it is cheaper to build new renewables with storage than new fossil gas plants. Studies show that by 2035 it will be cheaper to build new renewables with storage than it will be to run existing fossil gas plants i.e. fossil gas power plants will be uneconomic stranded assets not even worth running.
From an environmental perspective, fossil gas plants are problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, much fossil gas is sourced from fracking. That process involves using massive amounts of water in a country that is reeling from crippling drought – drought that the climate crisis is set to deepen.
Adding fuel to the climate fire, through leakage, fracking also releases vast amounts of methane emissions in the process, which undermine the climate benefits of moving from coal to fossil gas. There is controversy around when and whether fossil gas is worse than coal, but what is not controversial is that fossil gas is much worse for the climate than renewable energy – regardless of leakage rates.
In South Africa, research shows that transitioning to almost 100% renewable energy by 2050 would make our energy system more reliable (i.e. no more load shedding). It could also create an additional 200 000 jobs by 2035, lower the cost of energy by 25%, save 196,000,000,000 litres of water per year, and remove our biggest source of air, water and greenhouse gas pollution.
A small amount of gas may be needed to complement a renewable energy system. However, apart from allowing for such a small amount, why would we want to massively ramp up fossil gas, when a renewable energy future provides more jobs, affordable energy, and does not pollute our air and water? Where gas may be required to balance the grid, we should work to source it from biogas from municipal sewage plants, green renewable-energy produced hydrogen, and other renewable sources.
The most worrying aspect of COSATU’s proposal has to do with the recent inclusion of “clean coal”. While their initial proposal included no mention of new coal, political intervention seems to have pushed them to include reference to the need for “clean coal” in later proposals. There is no such thing as clean coal though, and it is disappointing to see COSATU reviving such a problematic concept.
Coal is never really clean, as vast air and water pollution are inherent to the process of mining and burning coal, despite technologies which can make them ever-so-slightly less polluting. And technologies that attempt to make coal climate-friendly by capturing and storing carbon emissions have proven prohibitively expensive and technically very limited. They are simply not a viable technology.
The climate science is clear that we cannot afford new coal and we must rather rapidly phase it out. From an economic perspective, coal has become deeply uncompetitive compared to cheap renewables, hence why banks are fleeing from coal. Continued advocacy for the myth of clean coal is disappointing, uneconomic and betrays South Africa to more pollution and climate destabilisation.
Medupi and Kusile, the last two mega coal power plants that South Africa built are producing some of the most expensive energy on earth and are already proving unreliable. With cost overruns, inflated contracts and corruption, they are estimated to cost us over R300 billion – a massive expense and a huge drain on the national budget. We simply cannot afford to lock South Africa further into expensive, polluting and unreliable coal power.
So, unfortunately, while COSATU’s proposal does a lot of good to unlock renewables, from a climate justice and economic perspective it is not yet good enough. We need to be putting South Africa on a rapid trajectory to a renewable energy future, not locking us into further dependency on uneconomic and environmentally deleterious coal and fossil gas plants.
Over several years, the National Planning Commission (NPC) convened a national stakeholder dialogue on a just transition. Citizens across the country agreed that we should be aiming for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Such a target is also in line with South Africa’s fair share of climate action to keep warming to 1.5°C as agreed to under the Paris Climate Agreement. By pushing forward coal and gas, COSATU’s proposal contradicts the aim of the Paris Agreement and the NPC’s vision of a just transition.
Working together with COSATU for a Better Eskom
While COSATU’s proposal is not yet good enough from a climate justice perspective, it has many positive elements which can be built upon. We offer this critique to help build a stronger vision and to respond to COSATU’s call for input on their proposal. We hope they will be responsive to our critiques and will adjust their proposal accordingly, so we can stand together for climate justice.
If we are to save Eskom, we will need to eventually come together and advocate for a just transition to renewable energy. If we succeed, we can unlock a lower cost, more job-rich, less water intensive future, which provides a more stable energy system that no longer pollutes our air, soil, and water or destabilizes our climate.
Recognising the possibility of a more socially and ecologically just renewable energy future, our coalition of trade unions, social, health, environmental, gender, human rights and climate justice organisations will be marching on Eskom this Earth Day, April 22nd. The future we will be marching for marries environmental and economic justice and calls for a Green New Eskom.
We welcome COSATU members and all South Africans to join us. In the face of the climate and electricity crisis we face, we need to stand up for a vision of the future that not only salvages the sinking ship of Eskom, but also ensures that we address the existential and interconnected crises of climate change, unemployment, inequality and poverty.