Picture: African News Agency – Eskom’s Medupi coal-fired power station.
By Trevor Ngwane and Patrick Bond
It is disappointing to hear that leading European Union (EU) countries are going back to using coal for power generation because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. John F Kennedy famously said a crisis provides danger and opportunity. This backsliding from the transition to renewable energy by some of the world’s biggest capitalist economies is undoubtedly dangerous in ecological terms.
The war in Ukraine is an inter-imperialist war and the sanctions imposed against Russia by the West have seen Vladimir Putin retaliating by using his control of the world’s gas supplies as a bargaining chip. He has reduced gas supplies to five EU countries including cutting 60 percent of Germany’s and 50 percent of Italy’s gas. Poland, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland and Netherlands have been completely shut off because of their refusal to pay in Russian rubles as demanded by Putin.
Coming immediately after the Covid-19 crisis, the Ukraine war crisis has spearheaded an energy crisis and an inflation crisis in the global economy. This underlines the crisis-ridden nature of capitalism as a political and economic system. Plans put in place by EU countries to avert the pernicious ecological crisis are now being put into jeopardy with Germany, for example, ready to renege on its commitment to exit coal by 2030 because of the threat to its gas supplies. It is as if a kind of war psychosis has taken over with its Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Action, Robert Habeck, of the Green Party, leading the slide back to fossil fuels on the grounds that Russia is using ‘energy as a weapon’ and ‘attacking us’.
For Habeck, there is ‘no choice’ but to restart Germany’s coal-fired plants and burn that dirty coal to keep the lights on and the machines humming. As a member of the Green Party, he knows that doing so will undermine the EU plan to become climate neutral by 2050 and that the earth simply cannot absorb any further increases in the emission of greenhouse gasses. It can be argued that, instead of pushing countries to fossil fuels, the European gas crisis is an opportunity to ramp up production of renewables and thus speed up the transition to a carbon-free existence.
Indeed, in May 2022, the European Commission presented its ‘re-power EU plan’ which is based on reducing EU dependence on Russian gas supplies and accelerating the roll-out of renewable energy including diversification of energy supplies and energy savings. Putin was already, even before the war, worried about his own dependence on the EU market and had begun turning east increasing gas sales to China and India. However, in our assessment of these power plays we must not forget that gas, oil and coal are fossil fuels. Any diversification in supply or demand must not shift us from the absolute necessity of moving away from the use of dirty energy.
Minister Gwede Mantashe’s love of coal and his reluctance to shift to renewables will no doubt find solace in the EU’s stumble back to fossil fuels. The ‘re-power EU’ plan suggests that this might prove to be a ‘temporary hiccup’ and Habeck will remember from where he got his votes. South Africa is caught up in its own energy crisis. Like the EU, we must use the crisis of load shedding to move forward with renewables. We must take advantage of what nature has given us. According to a recent study by Oxford University’s Environment Change Institute, South Africa and Egypt are the most favourable countries for solar and wind energy development.
South Africa must do more than purchasing energy from Independent Power Producers, allowing municipalities to build their own solar energy plants, and encouraging households to self-generate using small scale renewable energy technologies. It is important for a democratically controlled, profit-free, socially owned Eskom to engage in the construction of renewable energy plants, the re-purposing of old coal-powered plants for production of renewable energy, and the reconstruction of our electricity grid for maximum renewable energy generation, transmission and distribution.
The transition from fossil fuels to renewables must be just. Not only must we increase the use of renewables, but we must reduce demand and use of energy simply because limitless expansion in energy use is not sustainable. Post-colonies, developing countries, working classes, peasants, women, black people, first nations and other social groups that have experienced energy poverty and energy racism must find justice in the transition.
Historically, imperialist countries that colonised and exploited the wealth of Asian, Latin American and African countries, including the world’s islands, have been the greatest users of energy and carbon emitters.
In South Africa this means monopoly capital. The world’s elites and ruling classes must reduce their use of energy, their needs must be sacrificed so that there can be clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy for all. If this means attacking private property and profits, so be it. It is better to change the system than to change the climate.
Ngwane and Bond both teach at the Department of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg.