Following the COP 26, there has been a global call for the phasing out of coal as a fuel to produce energy. Studies have indicated that, coal mining and coal-bed extraction significantly contribute to climate change. The United Nations Secretary, Antonio Guterres pleaded with the international community to implement fast track phasing out of coal in order to curtail the climate disaster that looms ahead of mother earth. Amongst the top catalysts of climate change is the use of coal.
Environmental science documents that, coal releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that worsens the warming of the planet. Unfortunately, most developing countries depend on coal for energy. Africa herself has a dominant reliance on coal since, it forms a cheaper and easily accessible form of power generation. Never mind that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel that corrupts the ecological balance, the extensive use of coal in Africa attributes for a significant margin of employment.
However, given the cons that the use of coal has especially for the global South, it is generally understood that, its use should be put to a halt. Its continued use may lead to dire environmental impacts for the present and future generation. Thus, on a balance, its disadvantages outweigh its advantages. Having noted Africa’s reliance on this resource, it is prudent to analyse what the phasing out of call will mean to African countries.
Africa’s energy woes
During the Glasgow Conference, African countries such as South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe bemoaned the fast track phasing out of coal. On a catalogue of the concerns was the possible developmental repercussions that can ensue due to dispensing with this resource. Access to electricity in Africa is beyond reach of many. According to a recent study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, an estimated 600 million people in Africa cannot access electricity and 900 million have no access to clean cooking fuel. Africa’s reliance on burning fossil fuel to generate energy faces a global challenge in the wake of a climate emergency. Directly, the calls to slash the use of call will broaden the access to energy gap.
If Africa fails to cope up with the transition to green energy as has been the current situation, the power gap will exponentially shoot. South Africa is the biggest coal producer in Africa and fifth world producer of the sedimentary rock in the world. It is prudent to note also that, 92% of coal consumed on the African continent is produced in South Africa. Thus, it comes as no surprise to note the solidarity that African countries give to South Africa’s loyal stance towards coal production- at least for now. How Africa meets its growing energy needs is crucial for the continent’s economic and energy future and will have an impact on global trends.
Rapidly growing urbanisation and high population growth – 2.45% in 2021 – means more than half a billion people will be added to Africa’s urban population by 2040. This urban population will obviously need energy for their various domestic and economic activities. Dispensing with coal production by South Africa will mean that African countries have to shift towards green and blue energy as soon as possible to meet rising current and future energy needs.
Coal and economic development in Africa
In South Africa, coal industry accounts for at least 95,000 workers, or 5% of total employment. This is a very significant figure given that, unemployed woes are deeply pronounced in Africa. In Hwange, the biggest mining town in Zimbabwe, thousands of people rely on coal mining for their day to day livelihoods. If the coal industry is to shut down, massive retrenchment will result. This implies that, for a smooth labour transition, there is need for a very huge monetary investment.
In order to buy out South Africa to phase out coal, rich countries have pledged an excess of USD$8.5bn in financial aid to the country. This aid is earmarked towards investment in green energy and the re-training of coal miners into the modern trends of clean energy. However, this proposed aid should also cascade to other countries in Africa in order to enhance development and mitigate the impacts of transitional economies. For example, Mozambique had mapped a long-term coal extraction initiative in which million tonnes of coal would be produced by the country. Zimbabwe on the other hand, had brokered a coal investment deal with China aimed at reviving the Hwange thermal power station and increasing coal production towards the attainment of an upper middle class economy by 2030. Having just discovered that it boasts of over 200 billion tonnes of coal reserves, Botswana was at the verge of developing the coal industry and it had become its major priority. It is yet to be seen whether the country will be able to meet the 2040s developing countries target to phase out the extraction of its newly discovered resource.
The global politics shaping coal production and climate change
The major contributors to climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions owing to coal production are China, the United States, and the nations that make up the European Union. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions are highest in the United States and Russia. Historically, the U.S accounts for the largest percentage of global emissions. The whole of Africa accounts for a paltry 2–3 per cent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources. Invariably, Africa is recorded to be the continent most likely vulnerable to climate change.
Sparse rainfall patterns, cyclones and floods in Africa are some of the indicators to the impending catastrophe. Thus, in terms of climate justice, Africa needs to be cushioned from the impacts of climate change. While admitting the need to do away with fossil fuels, the universe must be honest enough to comprehend Africa’s need to catch up with the current norm in developed countries. The developed countries owe their development to coal industry as well. The sanctioning for the phasing out of this commodity in Africa might mean extensive problems if the developed countries fail to honour their aid commitments as per the Paris Agreement. Further, the universal common yet differentiated responsibility should present itself if the justice surrounding climate change is to be met.
An African future outside coal
Countries such as Namibia have charted clear roadmaps towards green and blue energy. The Namibian President Hage Geingob embraced the idea of green fuel and implored fellow SADC nations to embrace the same towards curbing climate change. However, concerns on the manner and nature of financial aid were at the core of his concerns. Geingob prefers climate finance to be provided in the form of grants rather than loans to help emerging economies not to be burdened by debt. Most energy projects are now leaning towards clean energy to the extent that, coal projects that were due to be financed by the likes of China can no longer be funded. Coal projects are either being ditched of funding or the funds being diverted towards greener fuels. In Zimbabwe, the Chinese Industrial and Commercial Bank ditched the funding of the Sengwa coal project owing to environmental commitments.
At the international economic forum, persistence on the use of coal might lead to future possible sanctions owing to non-compliance. Thus, inevitably, Africa has to pace up towards clean energy but, at its own convenient rate. Armed with political will and proper capital investment towards clean, renewable energy, African can do without coal in the nearest future. Just like what South Africa’s energy minister Gwede Mantashe alluded following a coal exit deal, “We are a developing economy. We must have a clear programme. We must navigate the transition carefully.”