South Africa, which gets most of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, is grappling with rolling blackouts, while coal miners are exporting more of their product to take advantage of sky-high prices.
"The industry is delusional, and I'm really struggling to get a sober conversation with the industry," Crispian Olver said at a conference on coal and the energy transition in Johannesburg.
"Our view is the coal market is going to drop off radically in the 2030s and particularly after 2035," he said during a panel discussion with executives from coal miners Seriti Resources and Menar Resources.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday made fresh pledges to tackle the country's worst-ever power crisis, promising to expand power generation, slash red tape and boost renewable energy procurement.
"The transition is coming, but it's going to be impossible to have a conversation with the industry if we can't get past the basic denialism," Olver said.
Seriti Resources CEO Mike Teke said "we are not climate deniers", and that he had met with Olver. Seriti, one of Eskom's biggest coal suppliers, is currently exporting "a lot of" coal too, Teke said, without providing details.
Menar Resources managing director Vuslat Bayoglu said renewable energy was not a silver bullet, and that it was up to Eskom, rather than coal miners, to minimise carbon emissions. Menar has also been trying to meet surging demand for coal from Europe.
Olver said the commission wanted to work with the coal industry to manage a "just transition" that would ensure alternative jobs are created in coal-dependent areas such as mining hub Mpumalanga.
Increased use of coal was the main factor driving up energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by over 2 billion tonnes in 2021, their largest ever annual rise in absolute terms, according to the International Energy Agency.
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