In a nation that’s become used to operating in the shadows, sometimes even the mention of sunlight can be met with disbelief. But sunlight is what President Cyril Ramaphosa offered in his pledge to UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres during the climate summit in New York — R160-billion worth, for a plan that could turn Mpumalanga’s coalfields into one of the largest renewable energy generators on Earth.
On 24 September 2019, Ramaphosa sent a statement to United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres that may have been the best news of the year. The pledge, South Africa’s core submission to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, made reference to an $11-billion renewables funding facility that would represent “the largest climate finance transaction” the world had ever seen. Two days later, all mention of the deal had been excised from the government’s online version of the statement.
None of the inside sources approached by Daily Maverick were willing to say why, but speculation from a less-connected source was that the deal’s “ownership” was still being worked out — whose plan it was, in other words, and how it would be presented to the South African public. It was an explanation that made sense, mainly because a Bloomberg report published the week before had cited Meridian Economics, a Cape Town-based consultancy, as the brains behind the initiative. This wasn’t just bad optics; allegedly, it also wasn’t true.
“All of the thinking comes out of the Eskom Sustainability Task Team,” Stellenbosch University’s Mark Swilling told Daily Maverick. “The $11- billion fund that the president refers to forms part of the recommendations that the task team made directly to him.”
And so, barely out the gate, we were neck-deep in the politics, wading through the vagaries of a statement made and retracted, the apparent misattribution of a journalist, the secrecy of a presidential task team and the sheer weight of R160-billion in never-before-seen “climate finance”. Given that this was all to do with the creation of an entirely new energy sector, the imagery of things flickering in and out of focus seemed apt.
As for Swilling, who also happened to be deputy chairman of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, co-author of Betrayal of the Promise report on State Capture. After Ramaphosa’s statement went public, Swilling’s said in a tweet: “The clearest commitment ever made to the South African energy transition. I’m blown away!”
But still, the Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Gwede Mantashe, is South Africa’s resident cheerleader for coal. Fossil fuel was the “single-largest source of global temperature increase,” according to the International Energy Agency, “responsible for over 0.3°C” of the 1°C rise above pre-industrial levels, Mantashe’s love affair with the stuff was looking more fundamentalist by the day. “If Mantashe only followed the numbers,” said Swilling, “he would realise that renewables are the cheapest option.”
From the consumer point of view, Swilling pointed out, coal cost R1.30 a kilowatt-hour in 2019 prices, renewables were tracking at around 60c. It could probably be brought down to 55c. Nuclear cost between R1.70 and R2.80, as per the industry’s own latest report.
Despite the fact that Guterres had recently placed South Africa in the company of climate rogues, denying the president a speaking part at the New York summit, Ramaphosa had drafted a statement that worked for the climate because it worked, first and foremost, for the South African economy.
“The mitigation challenge posed to South Africa is considerable,” the president declared near the top of his statement, after noting that he shared Guterres’s concerns about the escalating planetary emergency. “About 80% of our emissions are from our energy sector.”
Two paragraphs later, he added: “The rapid fall in prices of renewable energy technologies, coupled with our immense renewable energy resources, has created a massive opportunity for us to make this shift [towards a carbon-neutral future].”
The paragraph about the $11-billion climate fund had been deleted from the online record and the question is asked, were they worth the paper they’d been printed on? Hadn’t the South African state, which emits more greenhouse gas than many of the oil-soaked nations in the Arabian Peninsula, duped its citizens about climate mitigation before? (Remember Medupi?)
On the eve of the summit, financial institutions including Deutsche Bank, Citigroup and Barclays had committed to shifting their loan books away from fossil fuels. Although critics argued that the banks could have gone much further by pledging to phase out financing for coal, oil and natural gas altogether, the resolution was a rare victory for the UN — by reneging on their commitments, the banks could be stripped of their signatory status, and thereby face reputational risk in a world that was rapidly waking up to the reality of global heating. (And the politicians must have taken note of that figure – NewsHorn.)
How would the country find the funding to replace those plants? (Tax as always? – NewsHorn.) More than 100 of the world’s leading financial institutions had declared they would no longer be investing at all. Even the African Development Bank said no more. And the super-rich Saudis are open to applications for renewable energy projects.
Ramaphosa’s UN statement, in its original, non-censored form, demonstrated that the Eskom task team had fully assimilated the zeitgeist. For starters, the excised version contained the term “Eskom Sustainability Task Team” itself, right next to the phrase “Just Transition Transaction”. While Daily Maverick was unable to obtain a copy of the report that the task team had compiled for the president.
So, it was for the money still out there? (Being a smart politician, besides being a paradox, is all about the money. – Newshorn.)
(Editing for length and style by Alex Rose-Innes. Ensuring that the correct person is targeted for not being pc – The journalistic ra-ra is that of the editor-in-chief and not that of NewsHorn.)
Source: Daily Maverick