Is a net zero future realistic or even desirable for economic growth?

Envisioning a net zero future.

Envisioning a net zero future.

Published Apr 10, 2024


With all its technological limitations solar home solutions can play a pivotal role in reducing the level of carbon emissions in the environment.

But picture a scenario where South Africa by 2050 had achieved total transition away from fossil emissions towards green renewable energy. It sounds like a dream come true or is it?

Because a reduction in emissions means that all industries, especially heavy electricity industries will cease to exist. Primarily due to their reliance on the use of fossil fuels to power their industrialisation. Ending the use of fossil fuels to achieve net zero by 2060 would signal a major catastrophic economic collapse.

Stopping industrialisation on the account of preserving the environment would cripple the economy and most livelihoods related to the industrial age of carbon emissions.

There would be nothing left existing of the world we once were accustomed to in the early 2000s. That industrial world is largely off the back of fossil fuel, that keeps smelters in operation, mining operational, enables manufacturing, data centres operational and so on.

The strength of commerce, jobs and incomes are linked to a highly functional energy system as we know only too well in South Africa.

Yes, by then South Africa would have achieved its desired net zero 2050 policy goals of ending the use of fossil fuels and totally changing our reliance towards green and renewable energy and technology.

Hopefully the government of the day would have finally figured out how to use renewables to its best advantage with no load shedding in sight.

Personally I don't trust anyone who tells us that if we end the use of fossil fuels with all its immense energy benefits to usher in a new environmentally clean world built around future green renewable energy technologies.

For me the proof of the pudding is in looking at what other countries are doing and how their economies are fairing.

Countries like China and now Russia are steaming ahead in speed and pace in advancing their industrial capacity. And they are achieving rapid economic transformation primarily through the use of fossil fuels (oil and gas) in particular.

Countries with high GDP. According to World Economy Rankings 2024, the list of countries with the highest gross domestic product (GDP) amounts is $105 trillion (R1.9 quadrillion).

With this, the US ranked at top in rankings, China took second place in world economy rankings. China grows at a faster rate than the US. UK, India, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, etc are also considered in the world economy rankings list.

Of the countries involved in exerting huge amounts of pressure on the South African economy to transition to green energy is Germany and the UK yet none of these economies have ended their own use of fossil fuels. Their entire economies depend on fossil fuels to drive industrialisation and economic development.

It boosts their manufacturing sector and overall economic performance. None of the countries currently spearheading the end of use of fossil fuels have themselves stopped using thermal energy for their industrialisation. Most of their commitments are sheer hypocrisy and grandstanding.

10 largest economies in the world:

US: $26.9 trl; China: $17.8trl; Germany: $4.43trl; Japan: $4.2trl; India: $3.73trl; UK: $3.3trl; France: $3.05trl; Italy: $2.2trl; Brazil: $2.1trl and Canada: $2.12trl.

Those are the top 10 countries with highest GDP and overall improved quality of life. Why does energy matter? It is because it is the engine that drives economic performance and growth. Without electricity we will all be stuck in the Middle Ages on horse-drawn wagons. Well this is still the reality for most of the people still living in poverty and rural areas.

For over 500 years in Africa ever since the landing of the first ships that came to colonise South Africa, our people have never benefited from the West except as a dispensable labour and economic slaves to forge the success of industrialisation and commerce. So I don't trust anything that is sold to us in the form of future opportunities of changing our socio-economic prospects.

Even after the last 100 years of modernity and industrialisation, how come black people remain the most exploited and the least to benefit from any technological advancement in society?

So how would the energy transition benefit black people as a whole? So how will the just energy transition favour Africans in particular? And poor black people? We know from history that it is Africa that is the last to benefit even from exploitation of its mineral resources. This as no other previous industrial revolution has ever managed to uplift black people.

Africa is abundant with much-needed minerals resources used in the renewables energy sector. But Africa only mines and exports the raw materials over to highly developed First World countries. In turn these countries process and do further refinery of those minerals resources. Once they have turned the minerals into products they then ship them back to Africa and are retailed in South Africa at obscene prices.

Russian example

Russia is the world's oil and gas giant. Soon after Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected a few weeks ago. His first order of business was to instruct all his cabinet ministers to go back to their ministries and prepare plans to grow and position the Russian economy to be the fourth largest by 2030.

Russia's vast geography is an important determinant of its economic activity, with the country holding a large share of the world's natural resources. It has been widely described as an energy superpower; as it has the world's largest natural gas reserves, second-largest coal reserves, eighth-largest oil reserves, and the largest oil shale reserves in Europe.

The time for Africa is now to change its economic growth trajectory.

Energy is the key driver of growth. South Africa has comparably similar minerals resources to that of Russia if not more. So what is stopping South Africa from growing? Well it is simple: there is just too much economic, policy and political interference that is keeping South Africa from growing to its ultimate potential.

South Africa currently ranks 37 of the world's top 50 countries with the highest GDP. South Africa could easily move up the rank to compete with the top 20 countries if only we sorted our energy crisis mess. We need bold, focused leaders to take charge and rapidly increase the production of electricity and find better ways to produce cleaner electricity using fossil fuels.

Crown Prince Adil Nchabeleng is president of Transform RSA and an independent energy expert.

* The views in this column are independent of “Business Report” and Independent Media.