COP26 climate talks: USA, UK and EU will help finance South Africa’s coal phase-out and provide a model for developing countries

Tuesday’s announcement gave a semblance of hope at COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, where sentiment was low after the G20 summit failed to set an end date for coal use as some member countries and the COP26 presidency tried.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the initial $ 8.5 billion partnership would help South Africa decarbonise its coal-intensive energy system. The details of the specific funding have not been disclosed and diplomats expect the fine print to be worked out in the coming months.

US President Joe Biden stressed that trillions of public and private funds are needed to help developing countries move away from fossil fuels.

“By supporting and responding to the needs of developing countries rather than dictating projects from a distance, we can have the greatest impact on those who need them most,” he said.

Climate scientists and some diplomats say the South Africa Accords could pave the way for similar deals with other highly polluting developing countries – a crucial step in curbing global warming and avoiding a full-blown climate catastrophe.

The promise to finance the transition from coal is being kept by politicians in developing countries, as South Africa is one of the most coal-dependent countries in the world.

A central sticking point in the COP26 talks is climate finance. There is a global north-south divide at COP26 due to broken promises by wealthy countries to send $ 100 billion annually to developing countries to help transition to a low-carbon economy.

The $ 100 billion target was missed last year and there remains a huge loophole. Experts say $ 100 billion a year is not enough to get started.

Before COP26, according to the independent think tank ODI, only a few industrialized nations paid their fair share of climate finance for poorer countries.

The most polluting company in the world

An employee of the Komati power plant monitors several screens in the control room.  Almost 90% of South Africa's electricity generation is coal-fired.

Almost 90% of South Africa’s electricity generation is coal-fired, making the country one of the world’s top polluters.

The South African province of Mpumalanga is home to most of the country’s coal industry and coal-fired power plants with their colossal chimneys flanking both sides of the highway.

Driving east into the provinces from Johannesburg, the coal mines appear almost as soon as the neighborhoods retreat.

Recently, the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air ranked Eskom – which has an electricity monopoly in South Africa – as the world’s most polluting energy company. It emits more deadly sulfur dioxide than the energy sectors in the US, Europe, and even China.

However, Eskom CEO André de Ruyter believes the company’s track record in issuance is an opportunity for wealthy nations. They strongly advocate a transition to cleaner energy and have already made significant promises in terms of reducing coal. But someone has to pay for it.

“The cost of reducing a ton of carbon in South Africa is a fraction of what it would cost to reduce those carbons in the US or Europe,” de Ruyter told CNN in an interview. “If you have a limited amount of money to fight climate change, then it makes perfect sense to come to a country like South Africa and give us incentives to reduce carbon emissions.”

The cost of reconfiguring distribution to access green technology will run into tens of billions of dollars, de Ruyter said.

The Komati coal-fired power plant will be completely shut down by October 2022.

After years of mismanagement and allegations of corruption, Eskom has a whopping debt of more than $ 25 billion, and by most estimates, South Africa still has a lot of coal in the ground.

And even before the deal, South Africa made a commitment to transition to renewable energy, a political commitment that helped win the US, the UK and the EU.

“There is a saying that the Stone Age did not end because of a lack of stones. I am convinced that given current technological trends, the coal age will not end because of a lack of coal, ”said de Ruyter.

But it could stretch because of the lack of jobs. As with many proposed climate protection measures, local political realities are where green power initiatives live or die.

The Minerals Council, an industry lobby group, says around 450,000 households in Mpumalanga Province alone depend on coal for a living. With an official unemployment rate of around 34%, a significant loss of jobs in the industry would be politically dangerous for the ruling ANC.

“You will not be able to replace all the jobs coal and ashes have created because you will need a lot more hands and generally less skilled people,” said Marcus Nemadodzi, general manager of Komati Power Station.

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Nemadodzi points out the one remaining unit for generating electricity in the aging power plant. The government mothballed Komati in the 1990s but brought it back online when Eskom struggled and is still struggling to provide reliable power to households and businesses.

Soon it will be closed forever, with some resources being shifted to produce small-scale solar power for rural electrification.

“It’s going to be a process. We won’t shut one down and there will be another the next morning, but we have to start somewhere,” said Nemadodzi.

In a press conference in late September, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told CNN that a just transition was necessary and called it a “gradual process”.

“We want the countries from the more developed economies, which have caused so much damage to the environment, to honor the commitments and promises they made through the conferences that were held,” he said.

While far more funding is needed to fully convert South Africa to renewable energy, the UK High Commissioner for South Africa identified the emerging agreement to fund the country’s ambitious renewable energy goals as an important moment.

“If we want to keep the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 (degrees) alive, the developed economies must work in partnership with the major developing and emerging countries to achieve a fair, inclusive and accelerated transition away from coal and developing a sustainable, green and growing economy for all. This agreement shows how this is possible, “said Antony Phillipson.

Part of the political commitment in South Africa is based on the realization that this corner of the world will be affected by the consequences of the climate crisis, with more frequent droughts and faster rising temperatures to be expected in large parts of southern Africa.

Marcus Nemadodzi, the general manager of the Komati power plant, can be seen in this photo.

At the global level, it will not be enough for the largest emitters such as China and the US to curb emissions. Climate scientists say that almost every emitting nation must do its part to avoid unsustainable temperature rises.

But when your survival is based on coal, you have a very different perspective.

Down 84 steps into a disused mine near Ermelo, the illegal miners use pickaxes and shovels to scrape coal to sell for stoves and heat across the province. Sometimes they say they sell to middlemen who sell the coal to Eskom.

Anthony Bonginkosi defies the risk of falling rocks and deadly gases to feed his grandmother and sister. He heard about the promise to stop using coal.

“I have no choice; I have to save my hunger. Not just me, but those who follow me,” he said. “What can I say about that. It scares me. We have a lot of people who depend on coal. So we can’t live without them.”

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