Reconciling Sustainable Development and Climate Change Mitigation Within South Africa’s Energy Sector

climate change Pollution energy
Tuesday, 12 June, 2012 - 13:49

South Africa should balance between addressing energy-related challenges, realising sustainable development and also acting against climate change

The international climate summit, Congress of the Parties (COP17), in November/December 2011 and the upcoming sustainable development conference, Rio+20, from 20–22 June, highlight key national choices that will help determine the fate of the planet and its people. In South Africa (SA), for example, the energy sector falls at the intersection of human development and the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHGs), making it an essential aspect of poverty alleviation and the stabilisation of our climate system.

As a result of SA’s historical development, large segments of the population continue to lag behind in terms of the provision of basic service delivery, while the energy sector continues to rely primarily on coal. Policymakers need to grapple with how to provide energy access to the poor and promote the country’s energy security at a time when carbon dioxide emissions are constrained due to the threat of climate change.

This also underscores a key challenge of climate change: how do we develop and pull millions of people out of poverty when traditional developmental pathways are no longer viable alternatives? What do we choose: the basic welfare of people or the need to maintain the environmental integrity that enables the very foundations of human activity? While sustainable development has been the fashionable option endorsed by governments and other organisations, how can this be achieved when so many powerful actors have such high stakes in the carbon economy?

The Department of Energy recently held an energy planning colloquium where the challenges confronting the energy sector were highlighted. Typically, there was a lot of talk about how to enhance energy security while sustaining economic growth in the context of reducing GHGs. Seventy percent of the South African energy industry is coal-reliant in 2012, whereas the figure for the global average stands at 30 percent, pointing to a disconnect between SA’s domestic reality and global trends. While it was stressed that the Integrated Energy Plan (IEP) had to meet South Africa’s development objectives, it was conceded that some balance was needed between the attainment of energy security and the protection of the environment.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which sets out the electricity plan for the next 20 years, was adopted last year and circumscribes many of the decisions of the IEP. While the IRP does set out to reduce dependence on coal, the agreement to build two mega coal-fired power stations, Medupi and Kusile, is worrying. Furthermore, the alternatives suggested by the IRP don’t appear to be very well thought out.

The high cost involved in securing nuclear energy at the taxpayers’ expense may have negative ramifications in years to come. As the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster shows, nuclear also poses grave social and environmental threats. Controversial shale gas also continues to be viewed as a potentially viable element of the energy mix. At every turn, energy security (which historically is more about powering big industry than providing universal access) appears to trump environmental and social benefits, yet the extent to which SA can meet the twin demands of development and mitigation largely depends on its energy plan as set out in the IEP and IRP.

At international level, South Africa released a Green Economy Accord at COP 17, which outlined some of the steps that will be undertaken to achieve the ‘green economy’. In terms of energy provision, government has declared its commitment towards renewable energy and has stated that by 2016, 3 275 megawatts of renewable energy will be secured for the national grid. Government has also underscored its commitment to sustainable development in its submissions to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development entitled South Africa’s Inputs to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development - Rio+20.

The submission indicates that while SA has a number of policies that outline actions undertaken towards the sustainable development framework through the endorsement of energy saving and renewable energy promotion, these policies remain in conflict with other departments and policies. For example, over the last four years, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Minister of Economic Development and the Department of Environmental Affairs, have all put forward policies that support mitigation and the transition to a green economy. However, policies released by Eskom, such as the Integrated Strategic Energy Plan, and the National Integrated Resources Plan of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (NERSA) have not been well aligned to these recent trends, with social and environmental concerns therein being weak.

There is a policy disconnect between SA’s stance on climate change and sustainable development. Attaining a carbon-free economy will take considerable time to achieve and we may have both a coal-based and a green economy operating concurrently in years to come, although some experts think that a coal-based economy will be the most dominant. For now, the danger lying in our reliance on the carbon economy is that not only will carbon stocks eventually be depleted, but more importantly, it stops us from undertaking those decisions that can unlock important opportunities for the future, as green technology and renewable energy become the dominant global systems.

By continued investment in traditional technologies, we will lock the country into a high carbon energy economy while the rest of the world is making progress in moving away from this energy system. SA also continues to lag behind in its commitments towards climate change mitigation in the energy sector. To contextualise this, over the last five years, NERSA has introduced high electricity tariffs that will be increased on an annual basis, running for three years while ESKOM had received a US$3 billion loan from the World Bank to build the coal-fired Medupi power station - decisions that will have consequences for both poverty reduction and environmental integrity.

By incorporating more renewable energy into our energy portfolio SA would have a chance to address its mitigation targets set out in the Copenhagen Accord, diversify its energy mix, increase energy security and harness new industries that could pave the way for 40 000 new jobs. However, the continued dominance of regressive technologies negates our efforts to establish a system that would modernise our economy, alleviate poverty and increase job creation while protecting our environment.

- Anna Azarch is intern at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). This article was edited by Trusha Reddy, senior researcher for ISS’s Corruption and Governance Division in Cape Town.

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