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29 Oct 2019
BY Lloyd Christie

Mining green metals in a low-carbon economy

The Integrated Resource Plan (“IRP”), which was released on 18 October 2019, maps out the country’s current and future electricity demand and provides for nine policy interventions to ensure the security of South Africa's electricity supply. The IRP recognises that coal will continue to play a significant role as a source of energy in South Africa while also recognising that a diversified energy mix that reduces over-reliance on a single or a few primary energy sources is apt. The IRP provides for new additional capacity of 1 500 megawatts (“MW”) from coal, 2 500 MW from hydro, 6 000 MW from solar photovoltaic, 14 400 MW from wind, 2 088 MW from storage and 3 000 MW from gas.

It is significant that the etymological root of “energy” means “work” or “to do” since what are we “to do” when there will no longer be “work” for “stranded workers” of “stranded assets” in high-carbon sectors because of the need to transition to a resilient, low-carbon economy? The need exists because of doubts about the ability of the world energy supply infrastructure to meet the rising global demand in circumstances where the present trends in energy consumption are neither secure nor sustainable. But “energy drives the world” and an energy transition is therefore inevitable and social implications unavoidable. Thus, the urgent call has been sounded for this transition to be a just transition; not just in South Africa, where the “beyond coal” campaign has become part of the national debate, but globally. Sustainable mining, within a green economy, will continue to offer a solution.

The current energy system relies overwhelmingly on fossil fuels and the associated combustion technologies. The transition from a fossil fuel base to an alternative energy system relies, in particular, on metals to manufacture and maintain energy conversion technologies. These low-carbon technologies rely on “green metals” and the utility of these metals relies on their extraction and that, in turn, relies on a mine being established. The establishment of the mine produces quality jobs and often alleviates the inequitable distribution of energy services experienced in remote areas. This mine could itself be decarbonised by being powered on solar energy and functioning with electric vehicles, smart devices and electric and battery-operated mining equipment. It must, however, be noted that in manufacturing these electric powered devices, the manufacturing industry will generate its own carbon footprint which must also be addressed. This mine may therefore be the very testimony of the full green economy lifecycle if it happens to mine green metals like aluminium, chromium, cobalt, copper, manganese, platinum or nickel, which are used in the deployment of renewable energy technologies and the manufacturing of electric vehicles, smart devices, lithium-ion batteries or alternative batteries based on hydrogen fuel cells.

The South African Planning Commission’s National Development Plan envisages the South African transition to be to a low-carbon, resilient economy and a just society in which all sectors of society are actively engaged in building a competitive, resource-efficient and inclusive future. The transition to a low-carbon economy is often portrayed as being in conflict with mining and it is generally assumed that natural resource–based economic activities have no future in a low-carbon economy. However, the transition will rely heavily on the availability of the metals and minerals necessary for the manufacturing of clean technologies. The World Bank, in its research titled The Growing Role of Minerals for a Low Carbon Future, 2017, estimates that the world will require almost double the volume of mined minerals and metals than are currently produced to establish sources of energy such as solar panels and wind technology.

It is therefore important that South Africa positions itself in a manner that will enable the country to take advantage of the future commodities market and to meet the increased demand for metals within a low-carbon economy while at the same time creating good quality jobs.

Lloyd Christie

Executive | natural resources and environment

+27 82 210 2159


Zinzi Lawrence

Candidate Attorney | natural resources and environment

+27 66 476 0776