As world leaders fete President Cyril Ramaphosa for his green agenda in Egypt, his minister of mineral resources and energy insisted this week that coal will continue to play a critical part in electricity generation in South Africa. Gwede Mantashe believes coal, along with gas, nuclear and hydropower should be the main baseload.
Ramaphosa submitted South Africa's R1.5 trillion investment plan to use less coal to a group of rich countries this week – to a rapturous response from the UK, US, Germany, France and the EU at the COP27 climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.
The Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JETP) details a strategy to decommission coal-fired power stations and launch new renewable energy generation capacity. South Africa is one of the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters and 86% of its electricity is generated by coal.
France's President Emmanuel Macron described the plan as a "benchmark", while European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said that the partnership was a "first-of-its-kind global initiative" for "accelerating" a just energy transition in other countries.
US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen described the JETP as "groundbreaking" and said it "creates a new model" for tackling the climate crisis.
But on Thursday, during a parliamentary debate on the just energy transition, Mantashe said any suggestion that coal had "reached its sell-by date is a myth," citing a 700% increase in South Africa's coal exports since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Without giving details on their findings, he said various studies give "us hope and belief that coal will continue to play a critical part in our just energy transition".
He said the consensus in South Africa was that the country should move from high- to low-carbon emissions, rather than abandoning fossil fuels.
"We ought to guarantee baseload energy supply through a combination of gas, nuclear, coal, and hydro. A pendulum swing from coal-powered energy generation to renewable energy does not guarantee baseload stability. It will sink the country into a baseload crisis."
Baseload is the minimum amount of electricity needed to be supplied to the electrical grid at any given time.
This week, Mantashe's department and Eskom signed agreements that could establish three new wind projects in the Western and Eastern Cape as part of Bid Window 5 of South Africa's Renewable Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPP). The developer, Mauritius-headquartered Red Rocket South Africa, says the projects will add 364MW to the Eskom grid by the end of 2024.
Mantashe said further agreements would be signed with 13 preferred bidders under this window before the end of this month.
But he added that the REIPPP was not a replacement of Eskom.
"It must be clear to all, that Eskom is not for sale as it remains the country's baseload energy generator."
He also pointed out that Africa was the lowest polluter of the environment, yet it was the most-affected continent by climate change. "Therefore, it is incumbent on the developed nations which historically benefitted from industrial economic activities that polluted the world resulting in climate change to finance our transition appropriately and adequately."
He said the people of South Africa must be cushioned from the "dire consequences" associated with the just energy transition, including job losses in carbon-intensive industries.