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South Africa’s Coal Energy Sector Under Mounting Pressure


FILE - Steam rises at sunrise from the Lethabo Power Station, a coal-fired power station owned by state power utility ESKOM near Sasolburg, South Africa, March 2, 2016.

Coal provides more than 75% of South Africa’s energy supply, but in the wake of global warming, pressure is mounting for that to change. Protests were seen across the country last week and now a proposed Chinese-backed coal power plant may be scrapped.

It’s what keeps the lights on and industries running.

But South Africa’s coal energy sector is facing mounting pressure at home and abroad to end its use of coal for good.

Frustrated with regular blackouts and the effects of pollution, citizens of the mineral-rich country rallied last week, demanding cleaner, more reliable and affordable alternatives.

Urika Pais was among the protesters from Soweto.

“Electricity has always been a problem in our community. So, community members went forward and they fought for electricity. But when the electricity came, it came at a very high price. We know that solar power is a better solution and it will be cheaper,” said Pais.

FILE - Children use a parafin light to study during an electricity load-shedding blackout in Soweto, South Africa, March 18, 2021.
FILE - Children use a parafin light to study during an electricity load-shedding blackout in Soweto, South Africa, March 18, 2021.

South Africa is among the world’s top 15 largest emitters of carbon dioxide. Its reliance on coal stems from having vast quantities of the resource underground.

This week, though, South Africa’s government told the United Nations it is setting more ambitious climate targets.

While environmentalists welcomed the commitment, they say change to the energy sector is not happening fast enough.

Nicole Loser is an attorney with the Centre for Environmental Rights.

“We have to drastically reduce our emissions and reduce our reliance on coal by about 80% within the next 10 years, less than 10 years. We aren’t seeing those changes happening fast enough. We also know that we need to essentially double our renewable energy build our plants — that also is not happening,” said Loser.

As the rest of the world races to tackle climate change, analysts say pressure from business and foreign governments can force a faster green transition in South Africa.

Chris Yelland is an energy analyst with EE Business Intelligence.

“If we do not reduce our dependence on coal, we will be punished by our trading partners who will set up cross-border tariff. And ultimately, South Africa relies on trade with the rest of the world,” he said.

China announced last week that it would no longer fund foreign coal projects. That means a Chinese-backed coal project slated to power a new industrial complex in South Africa’s northern province of Limpopo may not materialize.

Analysts like Chris Yelland say China’s decision will have long-term ramifications.

“China was seen to be perhaps the last outpost of finance that could be available for new coal. And there is nobody else to pick up this ball to finance this new coal-fired power. So, I think the days of new coal in South Africa are over,” he said.

The prospect of canceling coal is a major victory for protesters who want to see South Africa embrace renewables on a larger scale.

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