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A Just Transition away from coal - what does it mean?

10 November 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

South Africa is at COP26 to discuss how to avoid a climate disaster, this is the plan.

The Presidential Climate Commission was tasked to both move South Africa towards a low carbon economy while managing the impact from potential disruption to jobs.

The idea of a just transition looks to both deal with how to lower our CO2 emissions and give those employed and dependent on those industries to maintain or ideally improve on the current conditions.

While the focus is on the energy sector, carbon emissions include agriculture, manufacturing, mining and transport.

The plan would need to address emissions across the board to achieve the first of the two key jargon terms. Net-zero and zero-carbon.

In trying to achieve this the measures may use mitigation or adaptation.

The time frame to achieve the goal is 2050. That is 29 years from now, for most South Africans that is longer than their lifetimes. For those that are older it is about the time since South Africa has been a democracy. If you consider what we have managed to achieve since then you would either be optimistic or very doubtful we have the time or even the political will or ability to achieve it.

Here is a brief explanation of each.

Net-zero v Zero-carbon

To avoid the worst of climate change forecasts we need to keep the average global temperature increase to 1,5 degrees Celsius. We are not on track to achieve that but most countries have undertaken to do their part to achieve it.

To reach the goal, we need to reduce carbon emissions to a level where the sum total of new emissions and actions to remove carbon results in a net-zero increase in emissions.

So a coal power station will need to try to reduce as much of the emissions it can and use other options like offsets and carbon capturing to result in a stable amount of carbon emissions being released.

Zero-carbon takes it a step further where the carbon reductions not only are reduced to the neutral levels, but reduced to effectively result in no carbon emissions occurring.

This would require both a major reduction in emissions and a major increase in capturing.

Given that we have exceeded the previous “normal” levels of less than 350 parts per million and are now above 400 parts per million we would have to get to the point of capturing more than we emit to restore the climate. The goal for that is the end of the century.

Adaptation v mitigation

As the climate changes, we will have to make changes to how we respond to it. Cape Town faced a day zero situation a few years ago as a result of an extended drought. While the drought should have been a very rare occurrence, the reality is that is likely to be less rare.

Cape Town would need to adapt how it captures, stores and uses water to manage it.

Similarly the changing weather will cause many who relied on agriculture to move elsewhere to cities within their country borders or to other countries. South Africa will need to adapt to that reality. Telling foreigners to go home or not planning for a rapid increase in urbanisation is a failure to adapt.

Mitigation relates to all the interventions to counter climate change. Switching from coal based energy to renewable or even gas would be an example of mitigation.

Carbon capture whether via new tech or increasing forests is a mitigation.

Developing more drought resistant crops and planning for where people would need to move and where they would need to move to is also mitigation.

Both are needed to meet the goals.

Just transition

If you don’t look after the people, even if the shift away from carbon is successful and we are able to avert climate disaster, we will still have to deal with a humanitarian crisis.

So looking at the goals, the economy and the people, here are some considerations

South Africa is the largest carbon emitter in Africa and the 15th in the world. We produce about 7,5 tons of carbon dioxide per person each year. That is still less than the 14 tons emitted per person in the US and the 15 tons per person in Australia.

So while South Africa must look to reduce its emissions, it does not need to do so to the same degree as the US and Australia that have a greater need to transition.

Given that the former US President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement to continue if not increase emissions, it would be unwise for South Africa to make commitments that are not also practical.

Eskom is looking to decommission 4 coal plants by 2025. They are all in Mpumalanga and not only have coal mines that rely on them, but the towns and many other industries.

To assume that everyone in these areas should understand that their livelihoods and their property will effectively become worthless in the interests of averting climate change would be an unjust transition.

What might be more equitable is developing the process for carbon capture on the power stations with the view to not only reduce the carbon output but to work with other coal plants to capture the carbon at the point it is created. An additional benefit of this would be to save the residents of these areas from the detrimental effects of the air pollution that has been associated with coal plants.

Mpumalanga gets at least 6 hours of sunshine per day, this makes it a potentially suitable location for Solar PV. By switching to an alternative form of generation you get to keep using the grid used to distribute the power. It also allows those in the mining and coal generation industry to re-tool to become part of the solar generation industry.

By keeping industry viable in the region, property prices and commercial services can be sustained and allow provisions for schools and hospitals to remain used optimally.

It is not a simple process and there will be major disruption to some, but hopefully the big opportunities for some can be used to support those that could not make the switch.

It is critical though that skills be acquired or converted and we avoid the arrival of those looking to make a quick buck or claim to be able to deliver services they can’t.

Sasol has undertaken to focus on using its expertise to produce hydrogen which can be used in fuel cells for vehicles and as South Africa battles keeping its trains running due to cable theft can look to switch the diesel and electric locomotives to using hydrogen fuel cells too.

Eskom’s long term plans might be to reduce its generation capability in favour of distribution from national to municipal level while leaving private, provincial and municipal entities to partner or produce power and invest in storage options.

As households move to become electricity neutral or even net generators Eskom is in the best position to monitor and manage the supply and demand across the network.

This is a deadly serious subject that we have ignored for over a century to increase production and provide subsidies to energy providers that were not in our interests.

There are encouraging options, they must take people and the economy and the environment into account, and we must act now.

10 November 2021 7:15 PM
Digital technology

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