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Welcome to my newsletter, The Global Pivot.

Welcome to my newsletter, The Global Pivot.

The Global Pivot

Welcome to my newsletter,

The Global Pivot

In this edition of the newsletter, I discuss the tensions that mark the green energy transition as well as its opportunities to change the social and economic structures for the better. I look at the urgency of lowering emissions, and propose an approach that balances the different public policy goals – climate change mitigation, energy security, and socio-economic interventions. This is the first of three-part series on the theme of green energy transition, looking at both domestic and international developments.


I also review a book written by top thinkers in their field, Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher, titled The Age of AI and Our Human Future, which maps the future of human knowledge in the age of artificial intelligence (AI). It also reflects on the uses of AI in warfare and the challenges of global cooperation in setting new norms to discipline the dangers of AI while harnessing its benefits for the collective good of humanity.

I hope you enjoy this edition. I look forward to your feedback.


Mzukisi Qobo

Green energy and its discontents: a gradual and balanced approach is needed

Volume 3, April 2023 Part 1




Like every momentous shift in history, the path towards the green energy transition is not without its discontent. Making the transition a success requires that we attend not just to environmental factors but also to socioeconomic imperatives. The core mission of such a shift should be to achieve an innovation-driven and green economy that is inclusive and equitable.


Given that the country has a large number of young people who are unemployed and suffers high levels of inequality, the government must manage the transition in a way that does not worsen the socio-economic tensions in the country. It should set out to improve living standards and build more stable and resilient communities. According to Statistics South Africa Quarterly Labour Force Survey of the last quarter of 2022, South Africa’s expanded unemployment rate is 42.5 percent. While this is a 0.5 percent decrease from the previous quarter, it is unacceptably high.


Although there is growing convergence among countries on the urgency of combatting climate change and shifting the production and consumption patterns towards greener and sustainable forms, there are different perspectives regarding the means, pace, and policy sequencing to achieve such objectives.


Some countries, mainly advanced industrial economies, are better placed rapidly to lower their fuel emissions and change their industrial processes. They possess strong and inclusive institutions that can cushion the vulnerable during a disruptive transition. And their citizens generally enjoy high standards of living. Moreover, these countries’ social and economic structures are broadly equitable and more resilient; they are reinforced by fiscal capacity and a social and economic infrastructure that is robust.


Despite their relative economic strength and social resilience, industrial economies place a premium on energy security. When the gas supply tightened in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, emissions from natural gas fell by 1.6 percent.


European countries did not celebrate such a positive outcome for the environment with alacrity; instead, this raised panic over an approaching winter of discontent at the end of that year and triggered frantic sourcing of coal from countries such as Colombia, Australia, and South Africa. Europe stepped up gas-to-coal switching, leading to 1.5% rise in coal-fired power generation in the European Union (EU) in 2022. Luxembourg, Denmark, and Germany unveiled the largest state aid packages per capital to cushion their citizens against spikes in energy prices by subsidising the retail price that consumers pay for energy - effectively subsidizing fossil fuels.













Credit: shutterstock.com

The lesson here is that countries negotiate policy choices under conditions of uncertainty and in the face of security and social risks. These political economy calculations explain why top emitters in the world are moving slowly in ditching gas and imposing the burden of rapid decarbonisation on developing countries that rely on coal.


Historically and cumulatively since 1850, the largest emitters are US, China, Russia, Germany, and the UK. Carbon dioxide emissions by these countries a hundred years ago have cumulatively caused global warming today. Three of these - Germany, the UK, and the US - are leading the Just Energy Transition initiative to nudge South Africa to decarbonise rapidly. These countries must set a better example by accelerating their own decarbonisation and make significant payments, as part of climate repatriation, commensurate with their role in the historical depletion of natural capital, for causing uneven patterns of economic development globally, and for placing at grave risk small island nations.

A Polarised Debate


One of the strands in this debate on green energy transition in South Africa holds a view that the country should accelerate the decarbonisation of its power sector in exchange for concessional finance along with an increase in the uptake of renewable energy to expand generation capacity, a transactional intervention that presumably would also ease the financial stress of the public utility, Eskom.


Those who advocate for radical decarbonisation believe that the sooner we get out of fossil fuels and embrace renewable energy sources, the more we can avoid the problem of inefficient public utility, characterised by operational inefficiencies and rent-seeking behaviour. This argument is far from compelling since there are solutions to such corrosive tendencies. These solutions lie in enhancing governance, taking drastic measures against criminal behaviour, improving operational capabilities, and rethinking Eskom’s business model.


Undoubtedly, reliance on coal is unsustainable in the long run; neither is it helpful to depend solely on renewable energy sources that are bereft of baseload. As part of its business model innovation, Eskom must play a pivotal role in future energy markets rather than just be an off-taker of renewable energy sources. It must draw lessons from other state-owned enterprises such as France’s EDF, Denmark’s Energinet, the State Grid Corporation of China. As it exits coal gradually, Eskom should pivot strongly towards other cleaner sources of energy with baseload such as nuclear energy generation, while participating as a developer or partner in renewable energy.


There is a tussle in the European Union between major powers over reclassifying nuclear as part of green energy. France insists on ‘technology neutrality’ to broaden the options for clean energy to include nuclear and hydrogen than to privilege solar and wind energy sources. Germany, on the other hand, is ideologically opposed to the classification of nuclear as green. The UK too is considering reclassifying nuclear power as environmentally sustainable under Great British Nuclear. As John Doerr, a leading Silicon Valley investor in clean energy has pointed out, there are ongoing efforts to advance a new generation of safer reactors, Generation IV. These technologies could provide the second largest share of the world’s carbon-free energy, geared for safety and lower cost. Nuclear should therefore be part of the options for carbon-free energy and a coal replacement in South Africa.


South Africa’s primary dilemma is that it has a socioeconomic structure that is characterised by high levels of inequality and unemployment while at the same time facing mounting external pressure to retire its coal fleet at a twinkling of an eye. The country is yet to overcome the social legacy of apartheid, which created a coal-powered industrial structure that bolstered the living standards of a white minority at the expense of the black majority.


Finally, a narrowly focused debate on the decarbonisation of the power sector could detract from wider interventions that are needed to shift paradigms in other sectors of the economy, including transport, the built environment, and ICT towards broad-based and inclusive green innovations. Such interventions require mobilisation of energies across the public and the private sectors to create a shared value in this area.




As we march towards a brave new world of green technologies, we must ensure that those left behind and trapped at the bottom of the old industrial economy are the major beneficiaries of the new economy. The transition to the ideal state must reflect a broad energy mix rather than lean on a narrow set of technologies. It should guarantee energy security and inclusiveness.


Ignoring socioeconomic issues and energy security risks a populist backlash that could significantly slow down a necessary transition to a green industrial economy. For countries like South Africa that have high levels of unemployment and inequality, a green energy transition that ignores socioeconomic disparities could exacerbate social and political instability, further undermining stable governance and social cohesiveness.


Reducing the density of coal in our energy profile must allow us to build back better, give dignity to marginalised communities, boost local capacities and diversify the ownership structure across the value chain. The green energy transition must be both pragmatic and open-minded about various technologies that could support decarbonisation without compromising energy security.

Book Review:

Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttenlocher. 2021. The Age of AI and Our Human Future. New York: Little, Brown and Company, pp. 254.

By Mzukisi Qobo

This book is a collaboration between some of the top thinkers and leaders in their fields, spanning international relations, strategy, and technology. Henry Kissinger is a highly respected thinker on global affairs and diplomacy, having served at the echelons of the US administration with many signature achievements, including brokering US and China relations in the early 1970s during Richard Nixon’s administration.


Eric Schmidt, the first CEO of Google, was recruited by the company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Schmidt engineered the company’s massive growth from a Stanford University start-up into one of the world's most recognized and leading tech firms – and one of the pioneers in the commercial application of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Daniel Huttenlocher is a computer scientist and Dean of the Schwarzman College of Computing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with vast corporate experience.


The book is timely in the age of geoeconomics tensions between the West and the East, especially against the backdrop of intensifying China-US tech wars. The authors begin their journey by mapping the history of Western philosophy to the era of AI. The book does not just celebrate the dazzling feats of technology but also identifies its limits, including its lack of self-awareness while also envisaging new and exciting horizons of human knowledge that work hand in glove with artificial intelligence.


The positive benefits of AI could outweigh the downside if it is appropriately goal-directed.  Bill Gates recently wrote in his blog that he sees a positive role of AI in the future, especially in improving education outcomes, enhancing the provision of health care, and offering solutions to climate change and inequalities.


Kissinger and his co-authors hold a less romantic about the prospects of AI than, for example, the work of Ray Kurzweil, who sees technology and humans merging into a single being. Their main point is that human mind has limits: contextual biases, cultural filters, and other personal experiences that can cloud its judgement. AI has a pivotal role in overcoming some of these limits – tempering the subjective from decision-making processes. As we can already see with the generative AI’s such as ChatGPT4, new technologies could bolster human productivity to reach greater heights.


There are, of course, dangers if we do not set limits for AI or if its parameters or goals are ill-defined. The recent debacle with dubious safety standards of Tesla’s Full Self-Driving cars shows the limits, if not the dangers, of technology when parameters are poorly defined.


In the case of Tesla, autonomous artificial intelligence has been allowed to work with fewer rules in a trial-and-error process that is bound to compromise safety at the initial development phase. It would be worrying if AI could generate its own code and set its goals as that could lead to more frightening re-enactment of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in real life.


As the authors of the Age of AI and Our Human Future point out, AI is constrained by the code that sets the possible actions of its parameters, the goals it is given, and inputs fed to it by humans. At the moment, Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) that is capable of multitasking, especially completing any intellectual tasks humans are capable of, does not yet exist; AI is incapable of undertaking self-reflective functions. As such, humans still have a critical role in setting parameters or steering AI.


The advent of ChatGPT-4 (“generative pre-trained transformer 4”), a significant update from ChatGPT that was first unveiled towards the end of 2022, is a remarkable feat in generating general knowledge and complex problem-solving abilities by AI. Its principal function is to create human-sounding text from analyzing a vast trove of information across the internet. It has multimodal functionality that enables it to create pictures alongside text. Like humans, it does suffer human biases and is as good as the information it is fed.


The book on AI and the human future raises important questions about AI's positive and menacing uses as well as the risks it carries for warfare. The authors make a strong appeal for international cooperation to restrict the deadly forces of AI while directing it to more progressive goals.


This work challenges us to discover ourselves anew in an era where much of the functions of reasoning will, increasingly, be performed by machines. The book also raises urgency for the development of multilateral norms and disciplines that could set parameters for the uses of AI, especially in war and areas such as cybersecurity.


Undoubtedly, global cooperation will be hard to achieve in a climate of mistrust induced by geopolitical frictions. Although limited by Western frames - the development and application of AI is growing at a breathtaking speed in China - works like this can at least inspire wider conversations about how best to harness the power of AI for positive uses while countering its dangers.

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