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Quitting Coal: What South Africa Shows Us

Quitting Coal: What South Africa Shows Us

Relatively optimistic forecasts for global warming assume that developing countries will quit coal rapidly. South Africa’s case shows that it won’t be easy.

Getting rid of coal is often seen as the easier part of the global transition to renewable energy. Developed countries have made great strides in abandoning coal, and investors have long avoided it.

But for some developing countries, it hasn’t been so easy. Today, I asked my colleague Lynsey Chutel, who’s based in South Africa and has been following the country’s shift to renewables, to help us understand why.

South Africa matters a lot in the global effort to curb climate change. According to Carbon Brief, a climate news site based in Britain, it’s the world’s 14th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The International Energy Agency estimates that coal accounts for about 70 percent of South Africa’s energy mix.

That makes the country a test of what a fair global energy transition could look like. As in richer countries, that will involve changing the political structures built on fossil fuels.

In 2021, wealthy nations signed on to an $8.5 billion deal to help South Africa move away from coal. It was the first financial package of its kind. Since then, similar deals involving other countries have followed.

But South Africa has a problem: The country has been experiencing rolling blackouts since the late 2000s and power failures have reached crisis proportions, with daily outages, over the past year. That’s partly because old, coal-fired power plants are faltering. Blackouts lasting up to ten hours at a stretch have become common. So, the country’s main focus right now is just keeping those coal plants running.

Here’s more from Lynsey.

Manuela: Why is South Africa having this energy crisis right now?

Lynsey: It’s the culmination of years of mismanagement and corruption. South Africa depends on a national electricity supplier, Eskom, generating power from more than a dozen dilapidated coal power stations. The company is broke, so it doesn’t have the money to rebuild. Now, week after week, there are reports of power stations going offline for emergency repairs. Corruption and organized crime are big problems, too.

How has South Africa’s promise to quit coal played politically?

The promise caused an enormous debate, even before South Africa embarked on the $8.5 billion deal with wealthy countries. The energy minister, Gwede Mantashe, has positioned himself as a champion of the coal industry, saying a hasty transition will cost jobs and cripple the country. He’s gone up against environmentalists and civil society, in news conferences and in court.

When the crisis started, the head of Eskom at the time, André de Ruyter, championed a shift to renewables as the only way to save the company. But he has recently left Eskom amid a controversy over his allegations of corruption within the company. The South African police are investigating an apparent attempt to poison de Ruyter with cyanide-laced coffee in December.

Studying by candlelight during a power outage in Soweto, on the edge of Johannesburg. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Can you tell me more about the transition deal with wealthy nations?

The promises of the $8.5 billion are yet to materialize. There’s an ongoing discussion between South Africa and industrialized countries about the terms of the agreement. At COP27, the global climate summit in Egypt last year, South Africa laid out a transition plan that included solar and wind farms, battery development and building electric vehicles, a sector that could create much-needed jobs.

But then the energy crisis got worse.

Right. When that happened, President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled a new plan to solve the immediate energy problem. While it included diversifying energy sources to include renewables, the main focus was to fix the existing plants. And almost all of them are coal-fired.

It doesn’t help that the war in Ukraine has forced some industrialized countries to compromise on their green ambitions. South African politicians and commentators, even those who were not vociferous defenders of coal, have pointed to this and questioned why the country should rush its transition.

What does South Africa need to meet its energy transition promises?

South African officials have said the $8.5 billion would be just a start of the more $80 billion the country would need to implement its plan. Officials have positioned funding as the main stumbling block to the energy transition, but it’s more complex than that. Funding is needed, but so is political will.

What stands in the way of the transition right now?

The current energy crisis is the main obstacle. South Africans want an immediate solution that will keep the lights on, and transition takes time. There’s also political opposition. The most powerful opponent is the energy minister, Mantashe, who is largely seen as one of Ramaphosa’s lieutenants.

And then, there is corruption. In a recent interview, the former head of Eskom, de Ruyter, who stepped down in December, said he had expressed his concerns about attempts to water down the governance around the $8.5 billion from the transition deal to a senior government official. The response, he said, was that “in order to pursue the greater good you have to enable some people to eat a little bit.”

While he hasn’t provided any evidence, his allegation has become a major source of concern about South Africa’s ability to transition away from coal.

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Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.

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