DURBAN, South Africa – To understand why South Africa is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the continent, check out the giant coal-fired power plants on the plains of Mpumalanga Province.
Mpumalanga has eight coal-fired power plants within a 100-kilometer radius and recent research showed it was the world’s second largest hot spot for sulfur dioxide emissions. Environmentalists have documented thousands of cases of pollution-related diseases.
But while Africa’s # 2 economy tries to overcome its near-total reliance on coal, climate experts say Mpumalanga could serve as a test case for developing countries trying to cut emissions while benefiting their people – a so-called just transition.
“Mpumalanga Province is currently one of the most famous regions in the climate world,” said Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, senior economist at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), an economic think tank based in Pretoria.
“South Africa is one of the first countries in the Global South to make this transition … if done right, it will show the world that it can be done,” said Montmasson-Clair.
Given the increasing global pressure to act ahead of the UN climate talks in November, a delegation of rich nations should be in South Africa this week to discuss how the government can be helped to move away from coal, the most polluting fossil fuel.
Ending coal use quickly is seen as critical to achieving an international goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius in order to avoid exacerbating climate threats such as increased floods, forest fires and droughts.
Africa’s most industrialized nation consumes more than 80% of its electricity from coal, making it one of the 20 largest carbon dioxide emitters in the world – but still it regularly carries out power outages to protect the ailing national power grid from collapse.
Switching to cleaner energies like wind and solar could help keep the lights on and fight global warming while fighting unemployment in coal areas like Mpumalanga, where nearly half of the population is unemployed, experts said.
However, measures to create jobs and retrain miners are seen as critical to the success of countries’ efforts to move away from coal.
“We know climate change is a problem, but today people are dying of hunger. We do not want to condemn any more to a death sentence for job loss, ”said Sizwe Pamla, spokeswoman for the South African trade union confederation COSATU.
“We understand that changes will take place, they are necessary, but they have to be managed. A just transition takes time, politics and proper planning, ”said Pamla.
Ten years ago, South Africa launched a renewable energy procurement program, generated by Independent Power Producers (IPPs), with the aim of empowering communities near the projects.
Despite some management flaws, climate researchers said the initiative could serve as a blueprint for a broader “just transition”.
Fair or unjust?
Last month, the South African cabinet passed a more ambitious emissions reduction target for 2030 to align its CO2 reduction commitments more closely with the Paris Agreement.
To meet its new target, the government would have to revise its current energy plan and remove some new coal and gas projects, experts said.
Eskom – the state-owned utility company – has made a $ 10 billion offer to global lenders to advance efforts to close most of its coal-fired power plants by 2050 and adopt clean energy.
“It won’t be easy, but Eskom has made a 180 degree shift in the right direction,” said Montmasson-Clair.
Pressure to find new, cleaner sources of energy is also coming from the country’s largest banks, some of which have withdrawn from funding new coal-fired power plants and mines.
But despite the excitement among climate experts over the possible extinction of coal, government plans to add other fossil fuels like natural gas to cushion the transition in the coming years must also reconsider, environmentalists say.
“Nobody denies that gas plays a role in the short term. The problem is, if you open the door, can you close it? It’s a risk, ”said Jesse Burton, senior associate at E3G, a European think tank on climate change.
Scientists say the use of all fossil fuels should be phased out quickly to prevent climate change spiraling out of control.
In Mpumalanga, Khuthala Environmental Care Group’s activist Given Zulu, also an informal miner working on mine rehabilitation, said the coal phase-out will work if done with proper consultation with the community.
“The people who depend on coal for their jobs are also those whose health and safety have been harmed by the coal industry …
Drawing lessons from previous climate initiatives – in South Africa and beyond – will be crucial in finding a way that will reduce emissions and benefit the local economy, said Montmasson-Clair.
“The question is not whether or not South Africa is transitioning – this is part of a global trend that is being driven by more momentum. The question is whether it will be fair or unjust. “
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