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  • Credit: © Greenpeace Africa / Mujahid Safodien

  • Credit: © Greenpeace Africa / Mujahid Safodien

  • Credit: © Greenpeace Africa / Mujahid Safodien


Suffocating the coal economy

25 October 2017

An op-ed by David Hallows of groundWork published in the Daily Maverick on 25 October 2017

There is great urgency to moving rapidly off fossil fuels. It will not stop climate change in its tracks but it might just leave us with a liveable climate in the second half of the century.

Global heat records were broken three years in a row in 2014, 2015 and 2016. The last two were El Niño years which push up the heat. Global temperatures were supposed to come off the boil as El Niño switched to La Niña in 2017. Thus far, however, 2017 is the second hottest year after 2016. Climate change is coming on much faster 2° Fahrenheit by 2036 or so and the present cycle of drought and flood is but a foretaste of what is to come in the next 20 years.

There is great urgency to moving rapidly off fossil fuels. It will not stop climate change in its tracks but it might just leave us with a liveable climate in the second half of the century. It would also result in a rapid improvement of people’s health in the coal burning regions. The recovery of damaged ecologies would take a bit longer but is essential to adapting to impacts of climate change. The draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2016) put the brakes on the transition to renewable energy in order to preserve a future for coal. Since renewables are also now the cheaper option, it seems particularly perverse to hang on to dirty energy. And since Eskom now has a surplus of power, in part because the cost of new coal is pushing up tariffs, the Life After Coal coalition advocates for the early closure of old plants.

In its submission on the IRP, however, the Fossil Fuel Foundations (FFF) warns of the destruction of jobs and a collapsed economy should South Africa move off coal. An opinion piece in Mining Review Africa adapted from the FFF submission claims, “There are 29,000 potential job losses in the coal sector alone. This could result in 162,000 unemployed and affect almost a million dependants in the economy.” What happens to power station workers, coal mine workers and villages created to house Eskom and mine staff is a real concern, but these numbers are cooked.

First, the FFF apparently sees the job losses as absolute. It simply ignores the jobs that would be created by the expansion of renewables and other technologies indicated in the IRP. Research done by the Energy Unit at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) shows that renewables are both cheaper than coal and employ more people.

Second, the IRP shows a one third reduction in coal-fired power over the period 2020 to 2050. The FFF IRP submission does not in fact calculate the associated job losses but the figure of 29,000 given in the opinion piece appears to be calculated from the way the submission adds up present coal sector jobs. How this then results in 162,000 unemployed is not explained. In 2011, Eskom said there were 129,000 people employed in the “Eskom cloud”: including all Eskom workers, coal mine workers, all firms supplying goods and services to Eskom, and the construction workers at Medupi and Kusile.

The FFF submission itself adds up all coal jobs – not just those in Eskom power stations and associated mines – and comes to a figure of 255,000 coal sector jobs. This number is heavily inflated. It says each of the Eskom coal power plants “employs an estimated 1,000 staff permanently, with at least another 3,000 contractors” to give a total of 56,000 jobs in coal-fired generation.

Contract workers come in two kinds: casualised workers with reduced rights and those who work for firms which do specified tasks and then move on. According to Eskom’s annual report, its “headcount including fixed-term contractors” comes to just short of 42,000. That includes all employees – in generation, transmission, distribution and administration. On FFF’s figures, there are another 42,000 people effectively working full time just at the coal power stations, whether for external firms or as casual workers additional to those on fixed-term contracts.

Similarly, the FFF submission says Sasol employs 25,400 people in South Africa and this should be multiplied by three “to account for outsourced contractors” for a total of 75,000. It does not give a source. Sasol’s annual report says it employs 21,000 “Service providers” globally. This implies perhaps 18,000 in South Africa. So that would put Sasol’s total South African employment at around 45,000 including in Sasol’s coal mines – 30,000 short of the FFF figure.

Eskom and the colliers have indeed abandoned many villages and mines. Closures are inevitable but are typically handled callously. The Department of Mineral Resources abandons responsibility while mine owners scurry off as soon as profit turns to liability. At Optimum and Arnot, Eskom treated workers as pawns in its political games. The utility adopts a more responsible tone in its latest annual report. Commenting on the likelihood of early plant closures, it says staff will be absorbed elsewhere.

In our groundWork report on the Destruction of the Highveld by digging and burning coal, we argue for a just transition that looks after the workers and people left short of breath. There is plenty of work to be done, starting with the rehabilitation, as best can be done, of the millions of hectares ruined by the collieries and repairing the long neglected townships where most people live. And whereas the coal economy has put more than half the people in poverty and 40% out of work, we look forward to a renewable economy that belongs to all the people.

Finally, if, on the recommendation of the FFF, we build more plants to burn more coal and pump more carbon into the air, it will be too hot to run them in the second half of this century. We can anticipate that Medupi and Kusile will close down early for this, if for no other reason.