ALEX LENFERNA: President Ramaphosa's vital climate test: firing Gwede Mantashe

OPINION

Since becoming President, Cyril Ramaphosa has attempted to position himself as a champion of climate action. He has established the Presidential Commission on Climate Change, invited youth climate activists to his State of the Nation Addresses, and written letters about the urgency of the climate crisis.

In his most recent weekly newsletter, written on 11 October, Ramaphosa outlined why the electricity sector must be the first and fastest sector to decarbonise - serving as the engine for renewably powering the broader economy. The letter outlines the incredible economic opportunity for South Africa if we do so, and the immense economic and environmental risks if we do not.

For all the president’s slick rhetoric on climate change though, the reality is that he has appointed a virtual climate denier to one of the most important positions for acting on climate change and energy, namely, Gwede Mantashe as minister in charge of the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE).

While Mantashe does not publicly deny the science of climate change, his actions are in clear contradiction with what scientists and economists tell us needs to be done to avert the worst of the climate crisis. Worse than being a simple climate science denier, Minister Mantashe is taking actions that will make the climate crisis much worse.

The world’s leading climate science bodies have detailed why we must urgently transition away from polluting coal, oil and gas to keep global warming from going above 1.5C above pre-industrial levels - a target all the world’s governments have agreed to and beyond which we would see increasingly catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

Economists for their part have told us that meeting the 1.5C target could “create millions of new jobs, significantly lift global economic growth, and achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking worldwide by the end of the decade”. That’s even according to the (normally quite fossil-fuel friendly) International Energy Agency.

Going in the opposite direction though, Mantashe is trying to open South Africa up to vast new coal, gas and oil exploration and extraction. He is also trying to lock our energy system into polluting and expensive new coal and gas projects. He is doing so not only in defiance of science and economics, but also civil society.

From the 22nd to the 27th of September, thousands of people representing dozens of civil society organisations marched to DMRE offices in every province across the country, under the banner #UprootTheDMRE. Their list of demands included that Minister Mantashe step aside and the DMRE be transformed to ensure a more socially and environmentally just future.

Giving a middle finger to civil society and climate reality, the very next week Mantashe and the DMRE hosted a conference in Limpopo. At the industry-only conference, they declared that “attacks on coal were premature”, and invited fossil fuel corporations to invest in coal, oil and gas in South Africa.

Embarrassingly, that coal-loving conference was happening just as international climate envoys were landing in South Africa. The envoys were there to see if they could strike a deal to provide favourable international climate finance for Eskom to fund a just transition to a renewable energy future.

Although the ANC has come out in support of the Eskom transition plan, it must have been very hard to sell the international climate envoys that South Africa was fully on board with Mantashe publicly opposing the deal and falsely calling a transition away from coal “economic suicide”.

As the president’s own Eskom Sustainability Task Force recommended, such international climate finance is one of the only ways for Eskom to solve its debt crisis and get onto a more sustainable pathway both financially and environmentally. As such, Mantashe’s actions are not only threatening the climate, but also the viability of Eskom and our entire economy.

That’s not the only Presidential Task Force that Mantashe is disregarding. There’s also the Presidential Economic Advisory council. It showed that Mantashe’s disastrous emergency power procurement programme “appears to be specially written for more expensive powerships and gas-to-power projects” and “to exclude competition from renewables projects”, which would be cheaper, cleaner and more job creating.

Then there’s the President’s Climate Commission which recently recommended that South Africa strengthen its plan to reduce climate-polluting greenhouse gas emissions. Mantashe’s polluting energy plans make meeting that plan extremely difficult and unnecessarily economically painful for South Africa, as recent economic analysis from Meridian Economics shows.

It’s worth noting that there was dissent from within the Presidential Climate Commission, with several civil society voices protesting that the commission’s plans are not ambitious enough. That’s because they are not in line with South Africa’s fair share of keeping warming to 1.5C. As such, Mantashe’s actions are out of line even with a plan that is not sufficiently ambitious.

Ramaphosa’s silence on Mantashe and the DMRE’s expensive and polluting agenda has been deafening, especially as it goes contrary to the advice of many of the expert bodies that the President has put together. Worse than silence though, Mantashe has repeatedly been invited to the Presidential Climate Commission to promote his polluting agenda, much to the astonishment, frustration, and disbelief of many present.

As Professor Steven Friedman argues, climate denial and inaction should be a fireable offense for government officials. Just as we should never put an Aids denialist in charge of the Health Department in the midst of an Aids pandemic, so a virtual climate denier should not be in charge of our vital energy and mining decisions in the midst of a climate emergency.

If President Ramaphosa wants to be an actual champion of climate action, he needs to start matching his words with action. That should start with relieving Mantashe of his ministerial duties and replacing him with a progressive leader who can transform the DMRE and move it in a more socially, economically and environmentally just direction.

Otherwise, Ramaphosa may be remembered as the president who delivered slick rhetoric on climate change, while delivering, in practice, a continuation of the energy and mining agenda which has made South Africa one of the world’s most unequal and polluting countries on earth.

Alex Lenferna is secretary of the Climate Justice Coalition and a campaigner with 350Africa.org. He holds a PhD on climate and energy justice from the University of Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexLenferna

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