Diversionary Post-Coal Politics in South Africa: A Chinese Solar-Powered Industrial Zone Controversy

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Patrick Bond


In September 2021 at a United Nations climate summit in New York, Xi Jinping announced that there would be no further Chinese coal-fired power plants along the Belt and Road Initiative, which stretches as far as South Africa. Instead, the Chinese operator of South Africa’s single largest Special Economic Zone proposal – in rural Makhado – and his local allies suggested that solar power could supply energy for the $10 billion project, including high-emissions industrial projects. This raised the question of whether firms engaged in mining, smelting, processing and other carbon-intensive activities would pick ‘low-hanging fruits’ within the renewable energy sector (instead of that power going into the grid for broader consumption). Their incentive is to do so, in order to safeguard the so-called Minerals-Energy Complex from Western climate sanctions – threatened, on grounds of high CO2-inputs to export products including steel, aluminium and petrochemicals. In spite of a 2022 United Nations Development Programme endorsement of the project, social and environmental resistance has intensified, but the introduction of solar power for high-emissions metal manufacturing presents a special challenge. Two techniques associated with ecological modernisation – natural capital accounting and the Social Cost of Carbon – may prove relevant to civil society critics of ‘extractivism’, in shifting the narrative further across space, time and scale.

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Articles (refereed)