December 2, 2022

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In South Africa, the weight of coal prevents conversion

#In other countries : Wind is high at Kutala, a mine a good hour’s drive from Johannesburg, where South Africa produces most of its coal. Workers in overalls wait for a truck to take them to the underground shaft.

The Kutala mine is part of an industrial landscape that includes hundreds of other but a dozen coal-fired power plants in Muppumalanga Province (north-east).

Thokosani Mtshweni, 37, with drawn features, prepares for a twelve-hour shift. He fastens his belt weighted with an oxygen cylinder and gas detectors. “Closing these mines will affect a lot of people,” the miner told AFP. “It’s going to be a mess.”

Coal is a pillar of the South African economy, employing nearly 100,000 people and providing 80% of electricity. But its future is uncertain: Africa’s most industrialized economy is called upon to ditch this carbon-emitting fuel to do its part in the fight against global warming.

Last year, the government received $8.5 billion in loans and grants from a group of wealthy nations to finance the transition to greener solutions. Tense negotiations over how to spend the money are set to conclude ahead of COP27 in Egypt in November.

>>> Read More: Energy transition: African producing countries reluctant to give up fossil fuels

For supporters of the change, the sums will act as a catalyst to transform the energy landscape of South Africa, one of the world’s twelve biggest polluters. But several reasons cast doubt on the ability to move quickly toward the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

Jobs at risk

Daniel Miminel, finance manager of the Climate Commission set up by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, underlined that “very significant funding” would be needed.

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A study by Stellenbosch University estimates the figure at $250 billion over thirty years. Recent studies suggest that going green will create more jobs than losing them, but it won’t be painless.

80% of the country’s coal production is concentrated in Mambumalanga.

“We need coal,” Isaac Mahumabelo said in front of a storage area in Kutala. “All the towns around here are built around mines”.

>>> Read More: South Africa: How polluting Eskom wants to become champion of renewable energies

Unions are concerned that job losses cannot be offset by hiring renewable companies. Unemployment in the country has already crossed 30%.

“Wind and solar are not designed in South Africa, they are manufactured elsewhere,” notes energy expert Tshepo Kgadima.

After ten years underground, miner Thokozani Matsweni also fears for his future. “Everyone depends on coal to survive,” he told AFP.

International pressure on South Africa to put its house in order is seen by some as hostile.

And Europe’s renewed appetite for coal in the wake of a war-induced gas crisis in Ukraine is often cited as evidence of double standards.

Decontamination

“Coal is still around for a long time, and how much we want to play…we will set our own timetable that realistically recognizes South Africa’s socio-economic needs,” said Mike Tech, CEO of Kutala operator Cerity. .

However, things are starting to change.

The Cudala mine adjoins Kendal, an industrial town surrounded by coal pits, billowing smoke under a gray sky. It feeds the largest nearby power station operated by the public company Eskom.

>>> Read More: South Africa. Energy: The continent’s biggest polluter is finally starting a green transition

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Between the sites, cornfields and herds of cows. Also on the roadside, chunks of coal fell from transport trucks.

Cerity recently created a green energy arm to invest in wind and solar power. “We need to diversify to look to the future,” said Mr. Deke notes.

Environmentalists are putting pressure on the government, including in the courts. This year’s victory saw officials called in to reduce pollution in Mpumalanga, the world’s most polluted air, according to Greenpeace.

The government has announced plans to boost renewables as planned power cuts have multiplied in recent months and Eskom’s aging plants are struggling to produce enough.

Because staying true to coal will cost more in the long run, warns economist Kaylor Montmason-Claire, there is an urgent need to act.

The EU is about to introduce a carbon tax on imports, which could be followed by other countries and would hit economies like South Africa hard, he says.

“If we don’t decarbonise, the job losses will be significant. We will lose access to markets and finance,” he said. “Not getting into the transition is not an option. The consequences will be dire.”