Column: A “just energy transition” is code for conserving coal: Russell

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CAPE TOWN, May 12 (Reuters) – In Johannesburg, South Africa, there is a plague known as the Parktown Prawn, which is actually a giant cricket.

Reaching up to seven centimeters (2.8 inches), the insect has a fearsome reputation for being difficult to kill and even if crushed successfully, it leaves black fecal matter that causes staining.

Smut in South Africa is a bit like the Parktown prawn – hard to kill, dirty when you do, but also somewhat useful as it eats parasites such as snails.

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So when presidents, miners and lobbyists attending Africa’s largest mining investment conference earlier this week spoke of a “just energy transition”, it was clear that the term is largely coded to keep the coal.

A just energy transition first entered the lexicon with a formal agreement between South Africa, the United States, Britain, France and Germany last November under which 8.5 billion dollars of financing would be mobilized to help South Africa decarbonise its economy.

South Africa is the continent’s largest coal producer and consumer, depending on this polluting fuel for around 80% of its electricity generation. It is also the world’s fourth largest exporter behind Indonesia, Australia and Russia.

While South African political leaders and the mining industry remain committed to decarbonizing the economy, dig a little deeper and the unwavering commitment to coal and the jobs it provides becomes evident.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former mining union leader, told the African Mining Indaba in Cape Town that the continent’s resources were vital for energy security, social and economic development and poverty reduction.

This all sounds reasonable, but Ramaphosa also used language that seemed to offer significant flexibility in how South Africa would achieve its climate goals.

“It is important, as we undertake a just energy transition, that we adhere to the principle contained in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities,” he said during the meeting. the event.

In practical terms, this probably means that countries like South Africa will want to conserve coal for as long as possible and leave the heavy lifting of getting rid of fossil fuels to more developed countries that can afford it.

SCHIZOPHRENIA

The Minerals Council of South Africa also appears to be trying to have its cake and eat it, as it remains committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and describes climate change as an existential issue, but it wants also keep coal jobs and presumably profits.

Nikisi Lesufi, the council’s senior environment, health and legacy officer, kicked off a press conference at Mining Indaba by calling on journalists to “not think of me as a schizophrenic.”

He then set out a position that may not fit the medical definition of schizophrenia, but was certainly contradictory in nature, saying it was possible to reduce carbon intensity and protect the coal industry. the same time.

Much of what the council and its mining members are offering is good news for climate concerns, such as using renewable energy to power mines and switching to clean vehicles, such as dump trucks. to hydrogen.

But these largely only deal with what are known as scope 1 and 2 emissions, leaving the huge problem for coal of scope 3 emissions, which is the pollution created when the fuel is burned.

Chatting behind the scenes with miners, officials and investors at the conference, it becomes clear that most expect coal-fired power to dominate South Africa for an extended period, even if the likelihood for new power plants and mines to be developed is diminishing.

South Africa’s energy dilemma mirrors that of other countries in similar situations.

Coal will likely be difficult to phase out in countries with vast domestic reserves and rapidly growing energy needs, such as India, Indonesia and even China.

Countries that can exploit national reserves and largely control prices for the local market will likely find that coal remains competitive with cleaner alternatives and has the added benefit of providing many jobs.

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Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

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The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which is committed to integrity, independence and freedom from bias by principles of trust.

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