THE ENORMOUS momentum of the fossil fuel industries, and thus within the global energy system, has many people convinced that ongoing growth in absolute terms is an inevitability, and that calls to phase out fossils are simple-minded and unrealistic. Yet we know that sooner or later this will change.

There are also countervailing trends, which appear more inexorable, but are given little attention and even less significance; such as the diminishing returns on the resources required for fossil fuel supply, from exploration through to combustion, which may be found starkly reflected in calculations of the energy return on energy invested.

The growing global campaign for divestment from fossil fuel assets may prove more persuasive for investors than the rationale for avoiding dangerous climate change – particularly in the case of coal, which is proving immediately and locally unacceptable regardless of greenhouse gas emissions or the prospects for a global climate agreement in Paris next year.

While there is diminishing denial of human agency in global warming recently, there is growing denial of the possibility of powering modern societies on renewable energy, within our planning time horizons. It may not be presented head-on and may be expressed apologetically, but the dominant narrative maintains our dependence on concentrated energy into the foreseeable future. This “realism” is presented as an inescapable paradigm.

One may be dismayed by the vehement insistence of the coal lobby – as reflected in the Coal Road Map – that we must continue to burn increasing amounts of their product for at least a generation; or, one might take heart that the industry is feeling embattled and starting to sound desperate. Laying claim to a social licence to operate and expand (however tenuous the logic) is perhaps a step up from total disregard for social consequences.

There is certainly massive inertia within the South African energy system, and more broadly the minerals industrial complex, that predates democracy and shows no signs of being taken in hand – an inertia in which the mass has recently been upsized (estimations of our coal reserves, not to mention prospective gas) and various ministers have been calling for more velocity.

How then do we give effect to the 1998 policy commitment to “ensuring that an equitable level of national resources is invested in renewable technologies, given their potential and compared to investments in other energy supply options”?

Currently in national electricity supply planning we effectively have a cap on the acceptance of renewable energy generation into the national grid (the limit imposed by the 2010 Integrated Resource Plan), and various regulatory barriers to renewable energy supply into the distribution grid.

We have little experience of the job creation potential of renewable energy technologies, but we do know that it increases with localisation, which requires unfettered local growth prospects.

There has been much lamentation that South Africa least failed to reap the potential of a “commodities boom” at the start of the 21st century: will this looking backward distract South Africa from the global renewable energy growth opportunity?

While there has been a successful wave of recent procurement, attention is shifting to so-called “base-load plant”, while the review of renewable energy policy and targets is five years overdue.

We have a national process – as per the National Energy Act (2008) – that is supposed to provide a “road map” for energy development and it is currently in progress and due to present findings and recommendations this year: the second Integrated Energy Planning (IEP) process, launched in 2012.

The range of options was very narrow in the draft IEP report published last year. There was no test case pushing the boundaries of potential renewable energy technology deployment and localisation. Attempts are being made to take some account of externalised costs, but there has been no response to challenges to the discount rate being applied – the rate at which we discount future costs and impacts.

This IEP process could be our last chance for a public engagement that has some traction on the impending investment decisions that involve pivotal choices for our energy future.

To map a successful transition to a sustainable energy system it must look at a broad range of possibilities, including what we could do if we give effect to the 1998 commitment to equitable national resourcing for renewable energy technologies.

Richard Worthington is the author of a report titled “The Tyranny of Realism: Integrated Energy Planning in South Africa in 2014”.