The US, UK and EU will help fund South Africa’s coal phasing out and offer a model for developing countries

The announcement on Tuesday gave a glimmer of hope at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, where sentiment has been low after the G20 summit failed to set an end date on the use of coal, as some member states and the COP26 presidency had sought to do.

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson said the initial $ 8.5 billion partnership would help South Africa decarbonise its coal-intensive energy system. The details of the specific funding were not released and diplomats expect it to be phased out in the coming months.

US President Joe Biden stressed that trillions in public and private funding will be needed to help developing countries move away from fossil fuels.

“By helping and responding to the needs of developing countries instead of dictating projects at a distance, we can deliver the greatest impact for those who need it most,” he said.

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Climate scientists and some diplomats say the South Africa agreement could pave the way for similar agreements with other highly polluting developing countries – a critical step in curbing global warming and avoiding a complete climate catastrophe.

The promise to fund a transition from coal will be noticed by politicians in developing countries because South Africa is among the most coal-dependent nations in the world.

A key issue in the COP26 negotiations is climate finance. There is a global north-south divide at COP26 over the broken promises of wealthy countries to transfer $ 100 billion a year to developing countries to help their transition to low-emission economies.

The $ 100 billion target was overlooked last year and there is still a big gap. Experts say $ 100 billion a year is not enough to begin with.

Prior to COP26, only a small number of developed countries paid their fair share of climate finance to poorer countries, according to the independent think tank ODI.

The world’s most polluting company

A Komati power plant employee monitors several screens in the control room.  Almost 90% of South Africa's electricity production is powered by coal.

Almost 90% of South Africa’s electricity production is powered by coal, making the country one of the largest polluters per capita. inhabitant of the planet.

South Africa’s Mpumalanga province is home to most of the country’s coal industry and coal – fired power plants with their colossal chimneys flanking both sides of the highway.

Driving east from Johannesburg to the province, the coal mines emerge almost as soon as the neighborhoods retreat.

Recently, the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air rated Eskom – which has a monopoly on electricity in South Africa – as the world’s most polluting electricity company. It emits more deadly sulfur dioxide than the United States, Europe and even China’s energy sectors.

But the CEO of Eskom, AndrĂ© de Ruyter, believes that the company’s results in terms of emissions are an opportunity for wealthy nations. They explicitly support a transition to cleaner energy and have already made significant promises of coal reductions. But someone has to pay for it.

“The cost of mitigating a ton of carbon in South Africa is a fraction of what it would cost to mitigate that carbon in the United States or Europe,” de Ruyter told CNN in an interview. “If you have a limited amount of money to fight climate change, then it makes perfect sense to come to a country like South Africa and encourage us to eliminate CO2 emissions.”

The cost of reconfiguring distribution to access green technology will run into the tens of thousands of billions of dollars, de Ruyter said.

The coal-fired Komati power plant will be completely closed by October 2022.

After years of mismanagement and allegations of corruption, Eskom has colossal debt levels in excess of $ 25 billion, and by most estimates, South Africa has plenty of coal left in the ground.

And even ahead of the agreement, South Africa had committed itself to switching to renewable energy, a political commitment that helped woo the United States, Britain and the European Union.

“There is a saying that the Stone Age did not end due to lack of stone. I am convinced that given the current technological trends, the coal age will not end due to lack of coal,” de Ruyter said.

But it can stretch due to lack of jobs. Like much of the proposed climate action, local political realities are where green energy initiatives will live or die.

The Minerals Council, an industrial lobby group, says around 450,000 households in Mpumalanga province are dependent on coal for their livelihoods alone. With an official unemployment rate of around 34%, a significant loss of jobs in the sector would be politically dangerous for the ruling ANC.

“You will not be able to replace all the jobs that coal and ash were able to generate because you need many more hands and generally lower skilled people with it,” said Marcus Nemadodzi, general manager of Komati -power station.

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Nemadodzi points to the remaining device that generates power at the aging power plant. The government targeted Komati in the 1990s, but brought it online again as Eskom struggled and still struggles to provide reliable electricity to homes and businesses.

Soon it will be closed forever, with some resources moved to produce small-scale solar-based energy for rural electrification.

“This is going to be a process. We are not turning off one and the next morning there will be another, but we have to start somewhere,” Nemadodzi said.

At a press conference in late September, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told CNN that a fair transition is a necessity and calls it a ‘gradual process’.

“We want the countries of more developed economies that have caused so much damage to the environment to live up to the commitments and promises they made through the conferences that have been held,” he said.

Although far more funding will be needed to move South Africa fully to renewable energy, the British High Commissioner for South Africa called for the forthcoming agreement to help fund the country’s ambitious renewable energy goals for an important moment.

“If we are to live up to the goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to 1.5 (degrees), developed economies must work in partnership with major developing countries and emerging economies to deliver a fair, inclusive and accelerated transition away from coal and development. “of a sustainable, green and growing economy for all. This agreement shows how it can be done,” said Antony Phillipson.

Part of the political commitment in South Africa comes from the realization that this corner of the globe will be hammered by the consequences of the climate crisis, with more frequent droughts and faster rising temperatures expected in large parts of southern Africa.

Marcus Nemadodzi, General Manager of the Komati power plant, is seen in this photograph.

Globally, it will not be enough for the largest emissions like China and the United States to limit emissions. Climate scientists say almost all emission nations will have to play a role in avoiding unsustainable temperature rises.

But if your very survival is based on coal, you have a completely different perspective.

Eighty-four steps down a disused mine near Ermelo, the illegal miners use picks and shovels to scrape coal out to sell to stoves and heat throughout the province. Sometimes they say they sell to middlemen who sell the coal to Eskom.

Anthony Bonginkosi defies the threat of rockfall and deadly gases to feed his grandmother and sister. He has heard of the promise to stop using coal.

“I have no choice; I have to save my hunger. Not just me, but those who follow me,” he said. “What can I say about it. It scares me. We have a lot of people who are addicted to coal. So we can not live without it.”

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