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Sunday 19 August 2018
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Africa needs to find its own way on coal

Africa needs to find its own way on coal

 

It’s easy for rich countries to lecture the world on climate change. But in Africa, millions lack what others take for granted, and change must be anchored in reality.

In the coming week, New York is bracing for snow and temperatures of -9 Celsius.

And, as the northern winter bites, you can expect to hear less of a four-letter word starting with C.

Al Gore uses it a lot, and it features in next month’s sequel to his Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

But coal is so essential to energy in Europe and the USA that, come the snow, talk of carbon emissions and climate change fade with the daisies, to bloom again in spring.

This is good for Donald Trump and his new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who has doubts on whether the earth really is warming.

And Mr Pruitt is not alone. A poll published in Washington this month shows just 27 per cent of Americans link climate change with human activities, and the majority are not convinced by the science.

illustration by Vic Mackenzie

 

Others compare it with the Y2K scare when doomsayers warned that computers would shut down as clocks ticked in the new year of 2000. Interestingly, nothing happened.

Both sides in the debate use terms like “obsessive” and “intimidating” to describe their opponents. But with Mr Trump’s inauguration just a month away, politicians are already softening their stand.

In London, Prime Minister Theresa May has cut the number of “green advisors” in her foreign office by 20 per cent and abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change, set up in 2008 by Labour PM, Gordon Brown.

The Liberal Democrat spokeswoman, Lynne Featherstone, called the move “appalling”.

“It sends all the wrong signals about this government’s commitment to tackling our biggest global threat,” she said, “and undermines the work being done to encourage other nations to take action.”

The problem is that other nations seem to agree with Mrs May. As the European Union faces a crisis over Britain’s withdrawal and the gap in an already tight budget, Berlin has quietly dropped its commitment to stop using coal for energy.

Like much of 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 per cent over the next 30 years. But as Washington pulls away, it could set a precedent, even though 2016 looks to have been our hottest year on record.

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

Two-thirds of America’s energy comes from fossil fuel. Gas, coal, even US oil, remain relatively cheap and, after the wall with Mexico, Trump’s loudest promise was on jobs and cities.

“We’re going to put America first,” he told a rally before the election. “That includes cancelling billions in climate change spending for the United Nations, a number Hillary Clinton wants to increase, and we will use that money to provide for American infrastructure including clean water, clean air and safety.”

So where does that leave Africa? In millions of words written and spoken about energy and climate, it’s rarely mentioned that, of the world’s 1.2bn people living without electricity, half are on this continent. Some homes have a generator, but these pump out watts at more than 10-times the cost of a central source like Eskom.

South Africa produces more than 90 per cent of its energy from coal. Tanzania, Ghana, Botswana, even oil-rich Nigeria, plan using more of it, mostly for power.

If that sounds like us letting down the world (again), coal is Australia’s second-biggest export after iron ore, and burning it generates 67 per cent of their electricity.

The Aussies, Germans, Americans and our own scientists agree: solar panels and wind farms are good.

The Obama government led the way with funding and research, even though the US is the world’s second-worst polluter after China. Europe is number three.

 

Solar hot water has made life better for millions in our high-density suburbs and the Kalahari is a perfect place to set up panel farms and make energy from the sun.

If only it wasn’t for the night! In dark hours, power must be stored in giant batteries and the technology is still expensive and unable to cope with demand. A small town in Florida or southern California could be run off solar, but for a city like New York it may be decades off.

In Africa, the first challenge is to help more than half-a-billion people who aren’t even on the grid.

So has the fight for a cooler planet gone off the boil? Not likely, and Al Gore’s new film will make it a talking point in January.

But with their heaters, TVs in the lounge and each of the kids’ rooms, washers, dryers and hot water on tap, a village in the developed world can use more power than some countries in Africa.

Don’t believe it? Then get this. The data centres for Google and YouTube use more kilowatts than Kenya.

And as the snow sets in across Europe and North America and the coal-fired heating goes up — and folk in Zambia or Mozambique sweat out Christmas around the thud-thud heat of a generator — it may be a while before there’s a common view on climate.