Over the past month I’ve been immersed in studies, workshops and initiatives focusing on South Africa’s power sector transition. Having largely removed myself from the ‘real’ world 18 months ago to get the PhD finished, I have revelled in this fast track catch up – but with a growing sense that reality has fundamentally shifted in my absence.
This sense is driven by changes in two areas. First is recent modelling of the South African electricity sector: In response to the government’s 2016 draft Integrated Resource Plan (an IRP is the tool used for planning pathways for the electricity system), the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) did some modelling of their own. This modelling reveals that, as opposed to the the government’s IRP, a power sector plan that optimises for least cost will build far greater amounts of renewable energy – more than 70% by 2050. Renewable energy is simply the most cost efficient option for electricity generation now. The CSIR’s low cost plan also emits fewer carbon emissions and creates more employment than the government’s IRP, placing the least cost plan well within South Africa’s ‘Peak, Plateau and Decline’ climate mitigation policy range.
Second, is what is occurring in the world of information technology. Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the proliferation of internet and GPS based applications are radically changing our societies and systems. These changes fundamentally support connectivity and innovation, and have the potential to drive energy and resource efficiencies at an unprecedented pace (I’m thinking off-grid electricity technologies, electric vehicles that feed power back to the grid overnight, and drone delivery services for starters).
The extent of these changes were not part of our conceptual landscape at the turn of the century. Taken in combination and with an appreciation for the acceleration in the underlying rate of change, it appears that market price and technology might just do it – ‘tip’ our systems from high to low carbon within the timeframes that climate science suggests is needed.
As someone who has just written a doctorate revealing and questioning the finance and technology focus of the climate mitigation community of practice, this conclusion is a little uncomfortable to say the least! Am I being seduced by the thinking I worked so hard in my thesis to critique now that I’m back in the ‘real world’? Or were the technology advocates right all along?
I’m interested in hearing what others are thinking about this.
But there is more. Assuming our systems have ‘tipped’ in favor of low carbon, what of ‘development’? The climate mitigation community of practice in South Africa has consistently emphasised our development context as inseparable from the country’s mitigation agenda . Will these advances in RE and IT support development? Or will they give even greater power to the forms of capitalism that drive inequality, unacceptable in any view of ‘development’?
It seems likely to me that it will be the latter. And if so, what is the nature of South African climate mitigation work, with its twin ‘development’ and ‘mitigation’ objectives going forward? Does this mean it will be far more about development, poverty, inequality and justice than climate mitigation?
If so, my question would be: What can we as climate mitigation practitioners bring to such an age-old agenda?