by Peter Knox SJ
As we watch from the sidelines of the climate change COP28, many South Africans are frustrated beyond measure by the inability of ESKOM to keep the lights shining on our beautiful rainbow nation. The power goes off just as we are booting up our computers to begin a day’s work. Or when we want to settle down to a bit of channel surfing at the end of the day, everything goes dark. Our individual frustrations are magnified on an industrial scale when mines, smelters, dockyards, and factories, the backbone of our manufacturing economy, can’t operate and fall further and further behind in delivering their products. We are so dependent on electricity that our lives are in turmoil when ESKOM lets us down.
I was house-sitting at my brother’s home this week and have been sheltered from “load-shedding.” With sufficient solar panels and two batteries, the house can be “off-grid,” and everything continues to function seamlessly when ESKOM turns off the lights. More and more people who can afford it are severing their umbilical cord from the national power utility, leaving the available electricity for others. That’s fine. But what about the millions of people who can’t afford even a simple solar light?
In rural Tanzania, I was happy to see dozens of houses with a small solar panel attached to their thatched roofs. These provided enough light at night to illuminate homes so that they did not need gas or paraffin lamps. With a small intervention, the local government was able to make an enormous improvement to people’s standard of living. It is Shillings well spent.
Recently, I watched the documentary “Bright Green Lies”. The (American) producers argue that “clean” renewable energy technology is not as green as its advocates claim. Producing solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, etc., requires an enormous amount of mining, refining and energy, significantly damaging the environment. The energy produced by renewable sources is frequently additional to the ongoing production of energy from fossil fuels. This “clean” energy does not replace or phase out gas-, coal-, or diesel-powered electricity. So, the amount of climate-changing greenhouse gases is still increasing. This is not the South African energy-poverty scenario.
It is fortuitous that ESKOM cannot keep our ageing coal-fired power stations running. Because of our historical reliance on energy from coal, South Africa is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the whole continent. Also, our dirty industries place us among the world’s top historical emitters of greenhouse gases. The more households and businesses wean themselves off ESKOM, and the more industries find other ways to manufacture without depending on subsidised fossil-fuel-intense ESKOM power, the better. Decreasing the growth of the fossil fuel industry is good for our country and world, now and for future generations.
But this is not our government’s game plan. An entire value chain exists around the dinosaur-coal industry, which certain ruling party members are resistant to see being replaced by newer, cleaner sources of power. One wonders what’s in it for them. These are probably the same people extending the begging bowl demanding “our share” of funding to mitigate climate-change-related loss and damages or for the transition from fossil-fuel-based energy. There is a climate-related gravy train, and they want the driver’s seat on that train.
Nobody denies South Africa’s energy industry’s deep and disturbing historical injustices. But perpetuating our oil, gas, and coal dependency is a grave injustice to our descendants. It is a distinct contradiction of ‘ubuntu,’ or care for our neighbour. We need to embrace just ways to relinquish archaic value chains and, at the same time, ensure that workers dependent on them are not stranded or left jobless. Pope Francis is very clear that civil societies should hold governments and businesses true to significant pledges to change. South Africa is no exception.