Coal mining: Coal-fired energy needs to be reduced in order to reach the Paris climate goals.
Photo: © Mike Gardner

Coal is still king in SSA

A COP23 side event hosted by the German Development Institute in Bonn, Germany, looked at the situation of Sub-Sahara Africa with regard to climate change mitigation.

At the COP23 Climate Summit in November 2017, governments got together to advance the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement committing parties to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius to avoid irreversible climate change. Using up all known and probable energy reserves would result in around 15,000 gigatons of CO2.

The carbon budget of 800 gigatons of CO2 stated in the Agreement is referred to by various institutions to be necessary for a two-thirds probability of reaching the Paris goal. The 1.5 degree limit called for by representatives of Pacific island nations already affected by sea-level rise would stand a 50 per cent chance of being reached with the 800 gigaton carbon budget.

The panel discussion “Climate Change Mitigation in Sub-Sahara Africa” focused on the continent’s increasing reliance on carbon-intensive energy sources to meet poverty eradication requirements. The event was organised by the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), RWI Essen, The Environment for Development Initiative and GIGA Hamburg.

One of the chief sources of pollutants in Sub-Sahara Africa is charcoal, which is in widespread use for household energy. Coal has assumed a key role in the Republic of South Africa, where the state-owned energy corporation ESKOM operates the Medupi power station. Medupi already ranks fourth among coal-fired plants world-wide, although ESKOM’s giant Kusile power station, set for completion in 2018, bids fair to become the largest coal-fired power station ever built.

Sub-Sahara’s household energy systems rely on charcoal

“Trade unions in South Africa are in opposition to phasing out coal-fired power stations, although renewables would also hold jobs,” Neoka Naidoo reported in Bonn. Naidoo, a Climate and Energy Policy Communicator and member of the Cape Town-based Project 90 by 2030, which campaigns for a low-carbon society, maintained that there were other groups in South Africa that also had vested interests in retaining coal. More nuclear power was being considered as an option, too. “The South African President is having talks with Russia over the development of nuclear power in South Africa,” Naidoo claimed. “More resources are going into nuclear research, while progress in renewables has stalled.”

Ottmar Edenhofer of the MCC noted in Bonn that renewables need not automatically lead to a phase-out of coal-fired power generating. The real limiting factor for CO2 emissions was not the actual amounts of carbon dioxide emitted but the carbon price.

Carbon pricing could penalise the use of coal, oil and gas through devaluation while incentivising renewables and generating revenue that could in turn contribute to meeting the demand for infrastructure. “Sub-Sahara Africa is facing the challenge of an overuse of commons and an underprovision of public infrastructure,” Edenhofer maintained.

Youba Sokona, Vice-Chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and top official of the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), emphasised Africa’s unique position, given that a basic infrastructure was not in place in the continent. “This enables it to explore new approaches and stay disconnected from classical ones,” Sokona maintained.

“It would be a big mistake to focus on adaptation and mitigation. Rather, we should start with a development agenda aiming at making it sustainable and climate compatible.” Referring to Sub-Sahara’s household energy system’s reliance on charcoal, Sokona noted that a transition to liquefied petroleum gas could be an option, although LPG was currently not affordable for small households and required a transportation and infrastructure basis.

Energy infrastructure has to consider Africa’s diversity

Gerrit Hansen of Germanwatch stressed the importance of energy access in Africa. Hansen agreed that energy considerations should be based on a sustainable energy approach, which was also favourable for Africa because building up a new energy system transition was the key issue, not transition.

However, she cautioned that despite their advantages in terms of achieving Sustainable Development Goals, renewables could also be very damaging. Furthermore, in designing an energy system incorporating renewables, it had to be ensured that local communities received their fair share of supply.

Jann Lay of GIGA noted that energy infrastructure had to take Africa’s huge diversity into account. Nigeria, for example, was one of the countries in the region that did have an energy infrastructure. Lower to middle income groups of society were largely not on a path to decarbonisation, especially in South Africa.

Compared to what Lay referred to as the spectacular success of mobiles in the continent, energy technology was lagging behind. This, he maintained, was also due to missing markets. Lay emphasised that countries should use the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), reductions that countries had been asked to publish ahead of the Paris summit, to guide their infrastructure approach rather than relying on bilateral plans.

Mike Gardner, journalist, Bonn/Germany