The west coast of South Africa is a barren slice of inhospitable land at the bottom of the continent. Less than an hour driving outside Cape Town, the terrain radically transforms into a rugged and nearly alien landscape. Arid vegetation abruptly meets the frigid waters of the Atlantic ocean. This unlikely slice of Earth has become a backdrop for the global shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The way we generate and consume energy is changing. Thanks to impressive technological advancements, the cost of producing and using renewable energy from sources like the sun and the wind has dramatically fallen. This giant leap is changing the fossil fuel business. Soon, it will make more fiscal sense for companies to invest in renewable energy than fossil fuels. Considering the gravity of the climate challenges we face, this is incredible news for the future of human civilization. Virtually every scientific organization in the world agrees that we need to curb our oil consumption to halt global warming.
The exponential growth of renewable energy appears to be just what we need to get the situation under control. However, the transition isn’t as fast as it might appear on the surface or as described in the mainstream media. We still have an enormous amount of work to do regarding our dependence on fossil fuels.
The surging price of Brent crude oil is a testament to the centrality of fossil fuels to the global economy. While fossil fuels companies say they are willing to embrace the renewable energy transition, many are still compelled by the profits derived from selling oil and gas. Many experts believe the world’s demand for oil has still not peaked.
Norway is an excellent example of this paradox in action. The Scandinavian country has led the world in transitioning to electric vehicles over the last decade. More than 90 percent of passenger vehicle registrations in Norway are now electric. That’s incredible. While Norway might be embracing electric cars at home, the country is still heavily reliant on hydrocarbons as a source of export revenue. In 2020, crude oil was one of the most important export commodities from the Norwegian economy. Norway is trying to have its cake and eat it too.
Something slightly similar is taking place in South Africa. Multi-national hydrocarbon companies that regularly say they are committed to the renewable energy transition are aggressively surveying South Africa’s rugged coast for new oil and gas deposits. Royal Dutch Shell recently lost a high-profile bid to conduct a massive four to five-month seismic survey for oil along South Africa’s Wild Coast in the eastern part of the county. The survey area was meant to cover a 6,000 square kilometer radius using a high-pitched sonar that would have had severe and prolonged effects on marine life in the area. Shell was so confident in its ability to carry out the survey that they even contracted a ship and docked it in Cape Town while the appeals were taking place.
After a massive public outcry and an online petition that reached more then 440,000 signatures, a South African high court issued an urgent edict to halt the survey. The court found that Shell didn’t secure proper authorizations under the National Environment Management Act to carry out such a harmful exploration in pristine stretches of the coastline. The victory was met with jubilation in South Africa and around the world, but it was overshadowed by extensive plans to mine the country’s west coast.
Unlike the Wild Coast, the western coastline of South Africa is rich in minerals as well as oil. There are dozens of current and prospective mining projects in the area focused on oil, gas, diamonds, and other minerals. The extraction of minerals and hydrocarbons is standard practice worldwide and will be for decades to come.
The problem in South Africa is emblematic of the more concerning trend that extraction and oil companies are taking advantage of weak government institutions to fast-track projects. Approvals are granted swiftly and often despite several petitions for deeper study of the environmental impact in the area. In one case, permission for a project was granted despite 35 serious appeals for reconsideration. If this is the situation in one of the most industrialized economies in Africa, one can only imagine the rate at which exploration and mining projects are taking place in other parts of the continent.
The battle over mining in South Africa reveals the simple fault lines of the renewable energy debate. In short, the onus for change in how we produce and consume energy rests on the shoulders of the consumer. Renewable energy infrastructure, whether it is home solar panels or electric cars, has never been cheaper for individuals. The more people buy and the better the technology, the more prices will fall.
One can’t fault privately-held companies for making a profit and seeking new growth opportunities. Until the market reforms and makes fossil fuels too expensive to sell and use, there won’t be a significant change in new exploration projects.
Individual choices can drive market changes. When more people choose to go green, this will be the start of the genuine renewable energy transition.
Joseph Dana is the senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was formerly the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.