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CLIMATE CRISIS PART ONE OP-ED: Forget the deckchairs — efforts to save ourselves from climate change are taking us backwards

A wind turbine spins as exhaust plumes from cooling towers at the Jaenschwalde lignite coal-fired power station in Germany on 12 April 2007. (Photo: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

By Jeff Rudin | Daily Maverick | 03 Dec 2023 

One of the certainties arising from scientific reports is that, at best, there is little prospect of restricting global warming to the maximum 1.5°C, to which the nations of the world committed in Paris in 2015. This is Part 1 of a four-part series.

My Daily Maverick article from 19 September 2023, “Social ownership of renewable energy — searching for the deck chairs long after the Titanic has sunk”, concluded thus:

“There’s a dual imperative for big and bold thinking. Climate change requires both ambitions. So, too, does the significant reversal of our triple plagues of poverty, unemployment and inequality. A foremost challenge will be to Mark Swilling’s bold assertion that ‘The dream of a revived, centralised, state-owned energy generation, transmission and distribution system will never be realised’.”

In this four-part series I’ve taken on an ambitious task of reducing my guiding principle of everything being connected to everything else to a narrow focus on what I see are the organic interconnections between climate change, poverty, inequality and unemployment, and how these connections are further linked to a sinking Eskom.

En route (in Part 2) I shall also attempt to show how many of the standard understandings of these matters are limited by not seeing the connections that provide a fuller grasp, albeit making them more complex.

What is clear from the brain sciences is that what we already know about anything plays an important part in what we see and how we understand what we’re seeing. In this respect, those of us who write about climate change and energy don’t help matters. When not speaking in impenetrable science, we use words as labels, as empty signifiers, as I shall be showing.

My hope – some might say my arrogance because it’s my understanding I shall be sharing – is that a better comprehension of so much of what we see, hear and read about climate change, energy, Eskom and the triple plagues will make us much better placed to know why we’re in such a mess and of some of the ways we can get out of it.

A brief reminder of the urgency of climate change – and an unexpected turn

One of the certainties arising from scientific reports on the current global response to climate change is that, at best, there is little prospect of restricting global warming to the maximum 1.5°C to which the nations of the world committed in Paris in 2015.

Indeed, a recent science report predicts that 1.5°C will probably be exceeded by December 2034, while the latest Emissions Gap Report from the UN Environment Programme – “Broken Record – Temperatures hit new highs, yet world fails to cut emissions (again)” – of 20 November 23, found that a 2.5°C to 2.9°C rise can be expected from the Paris Agreement pledges.

No less chilling is its finding that humanity needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 28% to limit global warming by 2030 to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while emissions need to be slashed by 42% to limit global warming to 1.5°C. The most optimistic outcome, the report found, is the likelihood of limiting warming to 1.5°C is only 14%.

For John Christensen, lead author of this report, “It’s about getting as close as possible to 1.5°C – the difference in impact is huge. So every fraction of a degree matters.”

As usual, it fell to António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, to dispense with diplomatic-speak. He opened his welcome to world leaders at the first UN Climate Ambition Summit, convened during this year’s UN General Assembly in September with “humanity has opened the gates of hell”, paraphrasing Dante’s poem, The Inferno. He continued: “Climate action is dwarfed by the scale of the challenge.”

We tend to forget that, of the nine closely interconnected planetary boundaries – the environmental limits within which humanity can safely operate – six have already been crossed. Climate change is but one of the six.

Climate change is no longer an abstract idea, no longer something that might happen in the future. It is not something that has to be measured in a lab, but something that can be felt, in many different ways, by any resident of Durban or the Karoo, any citizen of Pakistan, Somalia or Europe and North America.

This ought to make a difference. This ought to result in a redoubled commitment “to climate-proof the world”, as US President Joe Biden pledged at the UN. But this is proving to be a naive expectation.

Britain’s prime minister and his Conservative Party are using a backlash against climate change in their electioneering battles with the (currently) much more popular Labour Party. Hence their turn to the courts to stop the Labour mayor of London from extending the fines for high-emission cars in Central London to the whole of London.

Despite Boris Johnson being the architect of the policy when he was London mayor, as well as the generous compensation scheme for the replacement of old cars with new, the Tories – with the full support of their loyal press – branded the Labour measures as a “war against motorists”.

Even worse, the Labour leader urged moderation on his mayor. As part of the war against what is supposed to be the war on climate change, and as a counter to Labour’s commitment to bar any new North Sea oil and gas projects, the prime minister criticised them for being “bad for energy security [and] bad for the British economy”. He therefore intends authorising more than 100 North Sea licences and approving Britain’s largest untapped reserves, which hold 500 million barrels of oil.

The once much-vaunted Climate Change Act, with its net-zero-by-2050 commitment, seems to be no impediment to the new policies of either of these two parties. The Labour Party has watered down its pledge to spend £28-billion per year on “green energy”.

The ruling Conservatives are reconsidering the dates for bans on internal combustion engine cars and gas boilers. Such pushbacks are in keeping with British public opinion, when net-zero affects their pockets – 2050 is too far away for most of them. Only 16% of them support net-zero if they have to pay something for it now.

South Africa faces its own climate change disasters and the enormous costs of the damage. Yet, such is our preoccupation with Eskom and energy, that climate change is often forgotten.

Hiding in plain sight in the EU, which is often seen as being in the vanguard of climate action, is the rising popularity of the far right with its explicit opposition to action against climate change.

A recent New York Times article informs us about the conservative Republican “battle plan” for their expected next US president. The plan would be among the most severe swings away from even current federal policies. According to a recent poll, 72% of Republicans said that the economy should be given priority over climate change. That is up 13 points since 2018 – despite the increases in climate change-related weather disasters and the billions of dollars in increases for disaster preparation and recovery that climate change is costing the country.

In another survey of a wider range of countries, respondents were asked to name their three greatest concerns. It found that climate change comes only ninth, far behind inflation, poverty, unemployment, crime, corruption, healthcare and taxes. 

Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised, according to one academic, if a climate change denier ends up being invited to Davos instead of Greta Thunberg.


Cooling towers surround emissions from a chimney at Eskom’s Matla coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga on 21 March 2022. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

South Africa faces its own climate change disasters, such as floods and droughts, and the enormous costs of the damage. Yet, such is our preoccupation with Eskom and energy, that climate change is often forgotten.

To give recent examples of this omission, South Africa’s largest trade union federation, Cosatu, was quick to issue a press release in August 2023 condemning the further unbundling of Eskom and the expected privatisation of SOEs, but without saying a word about the impact these privatisations would have on climate change.

Similarly, Daily Maverick-hosted seminar, also in August, facilitated by its illustrious environmental journalist, Kevin Bloom, on “Bottom-up responses to the Energy Crisis”, had no panellist with a climate change brief and there was no mention of climate change during the webinar.

Similarly exemplifying this omission of climate change was a webinar organised by the respected Creamer Media on “Transport – How to deliver socioeconomic development through a stronger transport system”.

Occupying this back seat is not unusual for climate change. Making the pushback in Britain and the US even more disturbing is that the push has no substance to warrant a pushback against.

Aspirations for a safer – leave alone better – world obliges us to look more closely at what we are invariably invited to accept as an unstoppable transition to renewable energy. This issue was covered in my September article, but is sufficiently important to merit a return, for the sheer urgency of the situation is being diluted.

Time and current realities challenge the presumed renewable energy transition

Recent headlines such as “Solar power helps keep Europe’s grid reliable in historic heat” set the general tone. According to a USA Today report from 2022, solar and wind installations grew at their fastest rate in US history. “Ten years ago that would have been unfathomable. Six years ago, people would have been incredulous,” according to Dan Whitten, vice-president for public affairs at the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The same optimism is to be found in South Africa. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the University of Cape Town’s Energy Systems Research Group, Meridian Economics and the Presidential Climate Commission claim that an energy-secure, least-cost power system of the future will be dominated by solar and wind energy. The fourfold increase in rooftop installations in just the four months between March and June 2023 would seem to be indicative.

The numbers from the US and South Africa are impressive – until they are put into perspective. The same USA Today report tells us that combined solar and wind energy contributed only 13% of the US’s total energy demand. In South Africa, despite the growth of renewable energy (wind, rooftop solar PV and CSP or concentrated solar power), their combined contribution to the total energy mix in 2022 was only 7.3%.

According to the authoritative  Statistical Review of World Energy, 2023, renewables’ share of primary energy consumption reached 7.5% in 2022, an increase of nearly 1% over the previous year. However, fossil fuel consumption as a percentage of primary energy remained steady at 82%.

The headline in the respected Financial Times tells of a similarly sobering fact: “Renewable energy stocks hit hard by higher interest rates”. Adding that the “sector falls 20% in two months, with some wind turbine shares weighed down by contracts struck at unfavourable prices”, the article points out that this decline is despite tens of billions of dollars in tax credits, subsidies and loans being offered by governments to green energy companies in the US and Europe.

In a recent article written for the business community, “Net zero will be harder than you think”, Michael Liebreich, senior contributor, BloombergNEF (“a strategic research provider covering global commodity markets and the disruptive technologies driving the transition to a low-carbon economy”) offers what he calls “the Five Horsemen of the Transition”; “five reasons anyone hoping for rapid global decarbonisation is kidding themselves”. I urge reading the whole article but offer the following summary:

Horseman 1: Cost

Three cost factors are involved.

First, getting to 90% of clean power should be affordable. The problem is that the last 10% could cost as much as the first 90%. But “as of today, we have neither the regulatory frameworks nor the political support to fund the solutions”, he details.

The second cost factor is the mistaken expectation that follows from the huge reductions in wind and solar costs. This has led to thinking that any clean technology, “given an initial boost, will storm to market dominance under its own economic steam”. However, as Liebreich explains, if left to the market, decarbonising the economy could take the rest of this century.

The third reason is the “mirage” of cheap wind, solar, batteries and EVs being realities in much of the world. Clean energy, Liebreich reminds us, is cheap provided only that there is access to cheap capital. While the cost of capital is cheap at 6% in the Global North, this is not the case in the Global South where it costs 15%.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the transition in developing countries, excluding China, needs to increase from $770-billion to $2.8-trillion per year by the early 2030s to keep the world on track for 1.5°C. “Where is that money to come from?” he asks.

Horseman 2: The need for a much bigger grid

The scale of the problem is highlighted by Europe which has wind and solar projects equivalent to 130% of all capacity installed to date waiting for grid connection. In the US, the current interconnection grid backlog is equivalent to 120% of the entire capacity of its current US power-generation system.

“The scale of the challenge is almost inconceivable,” he says. The May 2023 estimate of the UK’s National Grid means that meeting the government’s 2035 net-zero power target would need building five times more transmission lines by 2030 than it had built over the past three decades.

The same issues face any country, he says, that attempts to meet the net-zero commitments made at COP26 in Glasgow.

Horseman 3: The material world

Overall, BloombergNEF estimates in its Net Zero Scenario that the energy sector will use five times more minerals by 2040 than it does today. Electric vehicles use six times more minerals than internal combustion vehicles; renewable and nuclear power between three and 12 times as much as fossil power; enormous amounts of copper and aluminium will be needed to build out the grid. 

Investment in the mining sector has doubled over the past two years, but even if all the projects on the drawing boards could enter production by 2030, according to the IEA, that would still deliver just 75% of the minerals required to keep the world on a 1.5°C pathway. The average new mine has been taking no fewer than 16 years to get from resource characterisation to production. That can most likely be accelerated, but, Liebreich asks, at what risk to the environment and social justice?

Horseman 4: Politics

This refers to fragility of support for the transition, which has already been covered above.

Horseman 5: Corruption, predatory delay and regulatory capture

We are already all too familiar with corruption.

Predatory delay refers to “the sort of underhand campaigns by fossil fuel interests to slow down the transition”. And they appear to be winning hands down. Last year the Global Fossil Fuel Registry found that countries around the world are planning to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with 1.5°C of global warming.

We must ask just how just is the Just Transition that leaves behind the majority of the population, and does so at an accelerating rate?

Departing from Liebreich’s text, in the interest of time, a standard definition of the widespread practice of “regulatory capture” should suffice.

“Regulatory capture” says regulatory agencies may come to be dominated by the industries or interests they are charged with regulating. The result is that an agency, charged with acting in the public interest, instead acts in ways that benefit the incumbent firms it is supposed to be regulating.

Daily Maverick opinionista Peter Willis is not without evidence that climate change – being, in his view, a problem without a solution – is a “predicament, like death, which, for all our reluctance, we have to come to terms with”.

I differ with Willis on his premise that there is no solution. Indeed, the remaining three parts of this series explains why. 

Who pays for the supposedly just transition?

We all know that we’re the world’s most unequal country, but do we know that the inequality is getting steadily worse? Do we know that South Africa’s Gini coefficient for wealth has risen from 80.4 in 2000 to 88.8 in 2022, according to the UBS Global Wealth Report for 2023?

From the same report we learn that at the end of 2022, 1% of South Africa’s population accounted for 42.2% of the country’s wealth, while 90% accounted for 19.1%.

Another measure of our inequality is that, according to Statistics South Africa, our average salary is as high as R25,304 a month or roughly R300,000 a year. Yet, two-thirds of our registered taxpayers live on R150,000 or less, with people aged below 65 years being exempt from tax if they earn less than R91,250, and less than R141,250 for the 65-to-74 age bracket.

Then we must ask just how just is the Just Transition that leaves behind the majority of the population, and does so at an accelerating rate? The load shedding-induced stampede to rooftop solar is the most immediate solution. Rooftop solar increased four times in the four months between March and June 2023. The downside of this success is the breaking of the previously uniting national grid.

“As it breaks up”, notes Mark Swilling, “so too does the promise of affordable energy for all. Like the rise of private security, private education and private healthcare in response to inadequate policing, public education and public healthcare, so too are we witnessing the rise of private energy for those who can afford to reduce their dependence on the national publicly owned grid. This is not a recipe for a just transition.”

As is always the case, it is the poor who pay, no matter the particularities of the economic crises of the moment. It should therefore come as no surprise that the top 10% of income earners in South Africa contributed between four and five times more greenhouse gas emissions than the bottom 40%.

An expression of this injustice is the knock-on effect of the wealthy moving to their own micro-grids, which leaves municipalities less able to provide for the poor. Municipalities are beginning to feel the pinch.

Criticisms of the municipal funding model aside, municipalities depend on the revenue from electricity sales to wealthier residents to subsidise services provided to the impoverished majority. This lost revenue not only hampers the ability of already cash-strapped municipalities to deliver basic services, but also puts an additional strain on Eskom itself.

Eskom receives only a fraction of the revenue it would receive if municipalities provided the free electricity to their poor. But only a fraction of the state-provided funds to pay in full for the derisory amount of what it calls “free basic electricity” goes to Eskom, the supplier of the electricity. Municipalities use the bulk of the revenue they receive for other purposes, as explained in “Free electricity programme fails to reach most poor households”.

An introduction to Part 2

Part 2 will examine a further eight commonly – but mistakenly, in my view – held ideas used to explain why we all agree that we are in a mess. Climate change and Eskom just exemplify this mess, for most people. Parts 3 and 4 will provide the outlines of what I see as a full diagnosis.

A full diagnosis of a condition is no guarantee of its cure. But no cure is guaranteed without an adequate diagnosis of a serious condition.

I thus leave you with Kevin Bloom’s words of realisable hope in an email to Daily Maverick Insiders on 3 September 2023: “We are going to find our way through. But we need to know how dark the darkness can actually get before we can find our way to the light.” DM

*This Opinion Piece was first published by the Daily Maverick.

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