It is truly astonishing how many climate experts there are in the world these days. This year about 70,000 people are expected to attend the UN climate change conference (COP28) in Dubai. As a Bloomberg columnist recently noted, “70,000 people riding airplanes (many of them private jets) to an oil country on the Arabian Peninsula to talk about climate change” is more than a little absurd.

Representing South Africa at COP28 is minister of forestry, fisheries & the environment Barbara Creecy. Answering questions in the National Assembly on November 29, before she jetted off to Dubai to share her expertise in just transitions, Creecy reported that she had told the World Bank that the “unjust transition” at Eskom’s Komati power station “has undermined confidence in the energy transition and needs to be fixed”.

For ANC politicians, Komati really is the gift that keeps on giving, no matter how many thousands of times the facts are put on the table. Those are: that the decommissioning of Komati, built in the early 1960s, had nothing to do with the country’s decarbonisation efforts; that it had always been scheduled for shutdown by 2020 – long before any countries or development finance institutions offered financial support for just transition efforts; and that only one of its nine generating units was still working before its decommissioning, with a maximum output of about 120MW.

In her meeting with the World Bank, Creecy referred to a November 2023 report titled “Early Lessons and Recommendations from Komati’s Decommissioning and Repurposing Project”, commissioned by the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), of which she is a member.

But this report clearly states that “the Komati coal power station was closed primarily due to economic reasons associated with its age, not the country’s decarbonisation agenda”. The PCC nevertheless seeks to draw “useful lessons for future just energy transition projects in South Africa”.

It was a significant achievement for Eskom’s Just Transition Office to secure the World Bank loan of $497m to repurpose Komati to try to create new opportunities for the surrounding community. But the loan was approved only in November 2022, after the decommissioning had taken place. The post-closure plans were the first of their kind in the country and, as the PCC report observes, Eskom did not have the benefit of being able to learn from previous experiences.

Komati is not a failed just transition project, as Creecy implies. It is a decommissioning project with a just transition component bolted on to it after the fact. Responsible leaders would embrace this as an opportunity to learn lessons about how to tackle something no-one on earth has yet successfully achieved. Instead, a few deft alterations to the facts make a wonderful story for politicians who gain political mileage from generating mistrust around the transition to a low-carbon economy.

A powerful learning opportunity

We have come to expect no less from mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe, and from the chaotic and contradictory public statements made by electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa. But to see the same approach adopted by the only cabinet minister who appears somewhat tethered to reality on climate issues, and who will represent South Africa’s experience to the world at COP28, is a depressing reminder of how little the truth matters in the run-up to an election.

In fact, reading the PCC’s excellent report on Komati renders Creecy’s dismissal of it as an “unjust transition” even more ridiculous. There are huge shortcomings, for sure, particularly in relation to timing, consultation and engagement with those affected by the closure. But the report describes how “Eskom estimates that 1,500-2,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs will be created in the next three to four years”. Several training facilities are being established, and community members “have received training in solar PV installation and mounting”. A welding training facility is being developed. An agrivoltaic facility has been completed. A containerised microgrid assembly line is under way. Eskom is investigating the possibility of a copper recycling plant at Komati. It is far too early to describe this as a failure, or to label it “unjust”.

Eskom’s Just Transition Office tried to do something new and important at Komati, without which no politician would have paid a moment’s attention to the community affected by the power station’s closure. It should be viewed as a powerful and important learning opportunity for all the other places where this will have to happen, not corrupted and exploited for political ends.

This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 7 December 2023.

By: Tracey Davies

IMAGE: Bloomberg / Contributor

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