Ineffective South African energy diplomacy out of kilt with coal geopolitics

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Speaking at a seminar on ‘South Africa in the World in 2019’ organised by the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Pretoria, former Thabo Mbeki is said to have criticized the current administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa for having no discernible foreign policy. Mbeki’s focus though was on the hardcore issues of diplomacy, politics and security. But my view, a foreign policy should cover a much broader scope.

In this regard, South Africa’s position on climate change, with specific reference to the usage of coal for energy production, has been more tough-and-go. This means, internally the debate is about ‘fixing’ Eskom to be able to provide electricity and in turn grow the economy. Much of Eskom’s electricity comes from coal, and a smaller percentage coming from other sources including nuclear and renewables.

However, South Africa’s posture on the relationship between coal and international commitments pertaining to the climate change agenda is worrying. This therefore signals the lack of a coherent strategy to motivate the country’s unique circumstances when it comes to reliance on coal for its energy needs. Instead, South Africa jumps to the band wagon together with the likes of Europe to stifle coal mining and usage of coal in general.

It does appear that the country does not learn from its past mistakes as far as international commitments are concerned. The post-apartheid government joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in January 1995 as a developed country in a hurry to be integrated into the global economy. Ziyad Motala explains, “South Africa embraced the [Washington] Consensus in the aftermath of apartheid rule at a time when their objective realities were worse than anything posed by the global financial crisis of 2008 in the western world.”

Some of the key features of the Washington Consensus agenda, according to Motala, include fiscal discipline (strict criteria for limiting budget deficits); public expenditure priorities (moving them away from subsidies and administration towards previously neglected fields with high economic returns); tax reform (broadening the tax base and cutting marginal tax rates); financial liberalization (interest rates should ideally be market-determined); exchange rates (to be managed to induce rapid growth in non-traditional exports); trade liberalization; increasing foreign direct investment (FDI) by reducing barriers; privatization; deregulation; and reduced role of the state overall.

The implications for the country are vast. Unemployment is around thirty percent. Inequality continues to rise sharply at over 0.6 (Gini coefficient). The economy is unable to breach the 2 percent growth mark. Scores of South African corporations left the country for good. And the dream for a “better life for all” is on the brink. Columnist Professor Balthazar reasons that a country as unequal as South Africa will struggle to sustain democracy.

As far as the energy diplomacy that ideally should include economic multilateral institutions, key states and most importantly the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is extremely underdeveloped and hamstrung by the greenies agenda against coal and other fossil fuels. South Africa is a loud voice within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which comes at the expense of the country’s energy security imperatives.

When the country signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in 2015, it made commitments to reduce carbon emissions and this so-called just transition emphasizes conscious steps towards moving to a low carbon, climate resilient economy and society. However, for some, just transition means abandoning coal altogether and quick adoption of renewables as a source of energy, without paying due attention to the fact that air, wind and cow-dung have no capacity to secure the base-load.

In recognition of the unreasonable demands that green instruments like the Paris Agreement placed on countries and their negative impact on the economy, the government of the United States was amongst the first to declare its intentions to withdraw from the Agreement when Donal Trump took over as president in 2017. The US Department of State announced on 4 November 2019 that the United States had begun the process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Trump’s efforts in this regard have been hailed for saving the ailing US coal-mining industry, and thus contributing to jobs and economic growth.

But what is most critical is that Trump has managed to achieve the impossible, that is, he has not only fended off the bullying agenda of the global greenies but he has also brought back coal to the national agenda. Not only that, Mandy Gunasekara argues, “Under Trump, the standards for what qualifies as “clean coal” have also been raised. Earlier this year, he finalized the first-ever legally viable plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our nation’s existing coal-fired power plants.”

From this, the US boasts that it has successfully deployed technologies that have ensured the environmental impact of coal-fired power plants is minimize, i.e. a 90% reduction of mercury emissions, a 92% reduction of sulfur dioxide and an 84% reduction of nitrous oxide. Gunasekara says, “These technologies coupled with balanced clean air regulations is why American citizens are breathing air that is 74% cleaner today than it was in the 1970s.” Technology is there the biggest bet in making coal a more reliable, cleaner source of energy going forward.

Besides the US, countries such as Australia and Japan have resisted the temptation of ‘coal-shaming’. In his defence for coal, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently said, “What we won’t do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy crunching targets which are being sought…” For Australia, coal accounts for 75% of the country’s electricity generation and is a valuable export worth AU$67bn annually. The Greens want to ban new coal mines and stop thermal coal exports by 2030, but the Labour Party disagrees.

Coal and climate change has been a battleground in Australian politics for many years. Anyone who dares interfere with coal is guaranteed to be removed from office in a whim. Greens spokesman Adam Bandt characterizes that country’s government as “devils in Canberra with coal in their hands and denial in their heads”. But PM Morrison, however, argues that his stance on coal and climate change is about creating the “sensible centre” — the need to balance ­emission ­reductions and the economy. This is something that has been lacking in the South African environment.

The growing view in South Africa is that coal should not be discarded from the basket that includes other energy sources. The CEO of the Council for Geoscience (CGS) Mosa Mabuza is adamant that coal should be considered together with nuclear, gas and renewables in efforts to traverse the journey of just transition. China shares the same sentiment. Although coal is still king in China, the country also had 728 GW of installed renewable power generation capacity in 2018 according to the International Energy Agency.

The GEM report released in November points out that China “has more coal power capacity under development than any country. In total, 195.6 GW is under active development, including 121.3 GW under construction and 22.6 GW permitted for construction.” Sonal Patel sates that China is one of the leading countries in developing new technologies that will reduce emissions from burning coal.

Mi Shuhua, executive vice president of China Energy Investment Corp., adds that the country’s focus is on technologies that will transform coal consumption, move the country toward “green and intelligent coal mining,” and expand carbon capture and utilization. As things stand, China has closed older, inefficient coal plants, and is replacing them with large-capacity high-efficiency low-emission plants.

What both Australia and China have done differently from the US is that while they remain committed to the global climate agenda they see no need to turn their backs on coal. This is more about radicalism, idealism versus pragmatism. Countries have a choice of sticking their guns like the US or they can opt for a balanced approach as in the case of China and Australia. The concern though is that South Africa doesn’t know where it fits in and hence the confusion.

What South Africa’s foreign policy has failed to do is outlining a cogent strategy that would involve like-minded countries when it comes to coal. The newly created department of mineral resources and energy and the department of environment have a joint responsibility of helping the country get to a sensible centre as far as coal is concerned. This pragmatism acknowledges that South Africa will still depend on coal for many years to come but there is also a need to reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

A few years ago and after Japan suffered a worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) expressed an interest to working together with South Africa in developing technologies and strategies for “clean coal”. This offer wasn’t taken up in earnest, and this means that an opportunity was lost to bolster South Africa’s position in the international system as one of the nations that favour a balance approach to coal rather than allowing itself to be cornered.

As with all foreign policy issues since 1994, South Africa has showed that it is not prepared to take unpopular positions that could potentially upset its largest trading partners, particularly within the European Union. This has resulted in its inability to craft what it considers as its ‘national interest’, which is “combining military, political and economic initiatives into similar frameworks and having a willingness to use threats to achieve its goals.” Therefore, Mbeki’s assertion that South Africa has no ‘discernible’ foreign policy has merit, not that the country performed exceptionally well under him as well.

For too long, South Africa has behaved as a love sick puppy keen on pleasing everyone even at great expense to its national agenda. The country therefore needs to reach out to the United States, Japan, China and Australia in an attempt to protect its coal sector from international scavengers like Greenpeace and other who are hell-bent on destroying the South African economy. The coal resources come from the country’s geographical position and South Africa should continue taking advantage of this endowment.

The talk of coal reaching its terminal end is premature and should thus be avoided. The New York Times reported in 2017 that 1600 coal-fired power plants were planned or under construction in 62 countries. Trump once proudly said, “We have nearly 100 years’ worth of natural gas and more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal.” South Africa needs to find its own place and defend its use of coal just like Trump does, but deploy Chinese strategies to reduce emissions.

 *   Hadebe Hadebe is a multi-disciplinary researcher based in Pretoria.