South Africa appears to be falling in step with the rest of the world in the march towards new energy technology. Indeed, the Presidential Climate Commission’s Just Transition Framework promotes investment in electric vehicles (EVs) as one of the opportunities to be seized in order to equip South Africa to meet the global clean-energy future.
While the framework’s ambition is inspiring, we cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from a simple fact: South Africa is simply not ready yet for mass investment in the technologies of the future. The return of load-shedding with winter approaching should rather motivate us to double down on getting the basics right first.
Of course South Africa must prepare itself for a carbon-free future. But it is impractical to begin this journey while we continue to struggle to fix our most pressing problems. There can be no well-executed transition unless we address our energy, transport infrastructure, economic growth and employment crises. Only then can we fully implement a bold and ambitious framework for a just energy transition that includes a massive shift towards EVs.
Deviating from this order will have devastating consequences for many South Africans, especially for the middle class which is supposed to keep the economy ticking.
For one thing, South Africa’s drive to develop renewable energy sources is moving at a barely perceptible pace. There is currently no real prospect of sustaining extra power at peak hours without prejudice to homes and businesses that rely on the stability of the grid for their daily needs. While a privileged few have the resources to insulate themselves from the added pressure on the grid, most of us cannot afford further energy instability.
What is particularly perplexing about the energy aspect of the problem is South Africa’s failure to exhaust its available options for relieving the pressure currently straining the power grid.
Currently, residential-sector electricity is subsidised during peak periods. Liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is an example of an energy source we should be promoting to shave off the residential peak time instead. Unfortunately, the Just Transition Framework sees gas as a risk rather than a valuable tool to ameliorate the energy crisis. This zero-sum thinking in terms of gas versus renewables rather than gas as a transitional point on the path to renewables is just one of the impediments holding the country back.
That we have yet to make any significant progress in leveraging resources like gas for this purpose 15 years after load-shedding began bodes ill for the effort to transition South Africa to a carbon-free future.
Economically, a pivot away from established industries like the fossil fuel-based automotive sector will require significant investment in the industries of the future. The framework notes, for example, that about 300,000 people work for auto manufacturers and as mechanics. Before we gut this job-sustaining sector, we need to see the long-mooted structural reforms needed to attract new investment into South Africa.
And while this is happening, we need to be investing in reskilling and upskilling especially young people to ensure that the current labour force can be absorbed into the new industries we seek to grow. This is the only way to avoid a leap that leaves these workers behind and exacerbates the unemployment crisis.
These are just a few of the reasons South Africa needs longer timeframes to make all the necessary changes to prepare for innovations like electric vehicles in a realistic and manageable way. Time to position the economy to attract investment. Time to fix our public transport system. Time to prepare workers for the industries of the future.
Most importantly for individuals, households and the economy, we need time to solve the energy crisis first, freeing up resources to devote to adapting the country for a carbon-free future.
Rather than delaying and diverting resources from the renewable energy sector, as the framework fears, resources like gas can buy the time we need to put the building blocks in place for a sustainable transition. Notably, the LPG roll-out strategy published in April 2021 as well as the liquefied natural gas tender released by the Central Energy Fund in February 2022, point to the government’s awareness of this fact. It is important that the Just Transition Framework reflects this reality.
There is no reason South Africa should not be taking advantage of the means already at our disposal to relieve pressure on the grid, even as we work towards a future powered by cleaner energy sources.
We all know the maxim: “You can walk and chew gum at the same time.” But right now, South Africa should be asking the critical question: can we actually walk? With an ongoing energy crisis, a struggling economy and rising unemployment, the answer appears to be no.
Like smart cities and bullet trains, electric vehicles are a welcome step towards a better future.
But to walk into that future with confidence, we need to face the reality we live in today: South Africa is not ready for electric vehicles. We need to get the basics right first. Then we can talk about chewing the proverbial gum.