The new coal war in Africa

Listen to the greenies, and coal is killing the planet, a problem made worse by the election of Donald Trump. But as Geoff Hill discovered, it’s not that simple.

mckenzie2If an iceberg had fallen from the sky, it wouldn’t have chilled the climate-change conference in Marrakech like news of the US election.

More than 10 000 delegates and activists were in Morocco for COP22, yet another round of the Paris Accord on climate change that became law on 4 November, signed by 195 heads of state including Robert Mugabe and all the SADC countries.

Barrack Obama is on board, but at a rally last month, Donald Trump made clear his position: “We’re going to put America first. That includes canceling billions in climate change spending for the United Nations, a number Hillary Clinton wants to increase, and instead we will use that money to provide for American infrastructure including clean water, clean air and safety.”

Not all bad. Mr Trump wants clean air and water. But the multi-billion-dollar industry that has become the green lobby needs cash. So do worthwhile programmes like Africa’s biggest wind farm on Lake Turkana in Kenya, or solar panels that are all the rage in rural Zimbabwe.

To protect the climate from rising CO2 emissions, everyone agrees on cleaner energy. But there’s dissent on how to get there, with pragmatists saying it will need an evolution to new tech that allows fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal to burn with less smoke. The hardline want to tear down those generators and replace them with wave, solar, wind (some say nuclear, to others it’s a swear word).

In Africa, this was to be funded by the rich, and the Paris deal came with a kitty of $100bn.

Now, the world’s biggest donor looks set to do less abroad and more at home.

And delegates like those in Marrakech may have to do the same if no one pays their hotels and conference fees, fact-finding tours (Africa is a favourite in the northern winter) and air fares.

The meetings are known as a Conference of Parties — unkind types say “continuous party” — and this was CoP 22.

Yes, planes are among the worst when it comes to carbon and greenhouse gas, but how else do you get to a COP in Durban, Nairobi, Japan, the Cancun resort in Mexico, or Paris where the deal was finally signed?

The treaty agrees to limit emissions and keep a rise in temperature below two degrees.

The wisdom of COP is simple: solar panels and wind farms are good, and we need to stop using coal to make electricity. But where does that leave Zimbabwe with some of the world’s largest coal reserves, or South Africa where Eskom uses the stuff for 85 per cent of its output? Botswana is the same, and Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria talk of using more, not less.

The Obama government has opposed carbon fuel even though the US is the world’s second-worst polluter after China. The EU is number three.

As polls closed and the count slipped away from Hillary Clinton, delegates in Marrakech tapped their iPads and followed the news online, forgetting perhaps that data centres for Google and YouTube use more kilowatts than all Zimbabwe, even Morocco.

A staggering 95 per cent of people not linked to the grid live in Africa or Asia. By contrast, a town in Europe — with their heating, TV in the lounge and each of the kids’ rooms, washers, dryers and hot water on tap — can use more power than a country in the developing world. And much of Europe still depends on coal.

If there’s a giant leap it’s been solar hot water. Cheap, simple and effective, it has changed lives for millions in Africa, India and especially Australia where the system was perfected.

But Aussies still get two-thirds of their power from coal. Also the second-biggest export, after iron ore.

Like all of central Europe, Germany has long, cold winters where heating can be a matter of life or death. And, energy minister Sigmar Gabriel says coal generators, “will on no account be switched off in the next decade, in my opinion not even in the one after that.”

Mrs Merkel had promised to cut CO2 by 95 percent over the next 30 years. But if Washington pulls away from climate change, it could set a precedent at a time when the EU is facing a financial hole with Britain’s withdrawal or Brexit.

There is good news. An Anglo-Indian firm in Madras has pioneered a system where 97 per cent of emissions from a coal-fired generator can be captured, and there’s talk of the inventers being put up for a Nobel prize.  They might also get rich because the Trump manifesto commits itself to America’s use of “clean coal”.


Renewables are part of the future, and technology is improving, but experts agree it’s not there yet. Solar produces relatively low levels of current, stored in batteries for use at night or on cloudy days. For now, lighting a mid-size town is possible but expensive, and a whole country could be decades off, longer for those where coal is plentiful … and cheap.

And while Africa may be a low consumer, in some ways we’re more dependent. Vaccines, HIV drugs, even snake-bite serum must stay cool. Hospitals can’t work without electricity and, where boreholes are deep, it’s still the best way to pump water.

Everyone agrees on this, on the need to get more people connected to the grid, even power as a human right. But for many COP activists, the echo chamber of their cause has boomed a single message: Trump can’t win.

Well he has. And anger was hot in Marrakech.

Wilfred D’Costa from the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development said there was, “an unhinged climate change denier now in the White House.”

Becky Chung, an American  from youth network SustainUS told a crowd, “As a young woman and first-time voter I will not tolerate Trump’s denialism of the action needed for climate justice.”

Does that matter for millions of students in Africa doing homework by a paraffin lamp? Unlikely.

What’s for sure is the solutions need to be real. Cleaner ways of using what we’ve got including coal.

Better distribution, fairer access, less people left out of the light.

On aid, Trump says, “Charity starts at home”.

For Africa, policies on power may need to do just that.

Post published in: Featured
  1. Craig Austin

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