Africa’s power crisis

With 55 countries and 1.2 billion people, the continent generates less power than Brazil

Africa´s power crisis

List the world’s biggest coal mines and you think of China, Russia and the US. But also on the list are countries many would overlook. Mozambique has the world’s fourth biggest coal pit at Moatize halfway up the country, run by the Vale company of Brazil. Colombia has the giant Cerrejón mine in La Guajira district, while South Africa, India and, new-comer, Tanzania and key players. It was a matter raised by Donald Trump in July when he lifted an Obama-era ban on the World Bank funding power projects that use fossil fuel. Now he wants to steer the Paris Accord “green fund”, using what he calls a “clean coal revolution” to limit global warming and put the lights on in some of the world’s poorest communities.

The logic runs like this:

A number of developing countries are so reliant on coal, they can’t stop anytime soon. A report published in Delhi predicts that India will rely on coal for electricity until 2047.  South Africa gets 93 per cent of its kilowatts from coal and, in countries like Australia, Pakistan, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana, consumption is on the rise, mostly for power. Latin America has more than 20 billion tons of the stuff underground — Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela are the top producers — and while the region gets much of its electricity from turbines on dams and rivers, coal is key in the making of steel and cement.

Mr. Trump says it’s pointless to castigate those who depend on carbon fuel. Better to help them burn it more efficiently and with less emission. “It is only by keeping an open mind about coal that we can tap its potential,” according to US energy secretary, Rick Perry. The trick, he says, is the new “clean technology”. Using carbon-capture, where CO2 and other emissions are filtered off, America hopes to maintain its commitment to global warming with a “coal based climate change plan.”

In Australia, the world’s top coal exporter, this system is known as “High Efficiency Low Emission” or HELE. Canberra is already using the HELE plan at home to make electricity. Mr Trump has to support US coal, a promise in his bid for president. This year, more than 50 000 mining jobs have been restored across some of the poorest parts of America. And he’s pledged billions to clean-coal research. But in June, Washington pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change, the only country to do so. The accord has been signed by all Latin American countries except Nicaragua and, so far, 197 heads of state have pledged to limit global warming.

At his speech in the White House rose garden, withdrawing from the accord, the President said he remained “open to a new deal that better protects American interests”. The treaty comes with a $100bn kitty known as the Green Climate Fund, where rich nations pay in and the money is used to help poorer ones limit their emissions. Barack Obama pledged $3 billion, delivering a third of the money before leaving the White House.

The current administration has said it won’t pay the rest, but the US gets to keep a seat on the managing board for a year or more based on Obama’s $1 billion. The seat includes a veto on resolutions.

Now, Mr Trump says he wants to encourage developing countries to build coal plants that produce fewer emissions and pump out more electricity: the "clean coal" he promised to underwrite at last year’s election. The Green Fund is supposed to help developing countries reduce greenhouse gas. Critics including NGOs and aid groups say the Trump administration’s objective runs counter to that. "This is not supposed to be a coal slush fund," said Karen Orenstein, deputy director of the economic policy program at Friends of the Earth. "This is a fund about sustainable development in the age of climate crisis."

Others say a trillion dollars in aid to Africa the past 50 years has neither stemmed poverty nor saved hundreds of species like rhinos, gorillas, even some trees, from near extinction. On a continent where half the population are below the UN poverty line and a third lack access to clean water, climate change is not top of mind. Instead of billions going to wind or solar projects that rely on imported equipment, the White House wants coal-rich nations like India, Tanzania or Mozambique to use their resources as they see fit, not on a diktat from the World Bank or a UN treaty.

Africa has 55 countries, but together they generate less electricity than Brazil. An estimated 600 million Africans have no access to the grid, more than the entire population of South America.  And while India has nuclear weapons and a space program, nearly 300 million of its people live without power.

“This is scandalous”, says Dr Bennie Peiser who leads the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London think-tank founded by Nigel Lawson who served as finance minister under Margaret Thatcher. “Investors cannot set up factories or even farms when electric power is absent or unreliable,” Dr Peiser said. “You need to think of this as a chance to lift people out of poverty and unemployment. It’s also vital in purifying water, running a hospital and maintaining a modern economy.”

Dr. Peiser said it was easy to talk about wind or solar power in Africa, “but in countries with limited foreign exchange, this means importing equipment and know-how to make it happen.  You have to ask how logical that is for a place like Tanzania with billions of tons of coal lying in the ground.”

Those who seek to solve the problem point to Latin America. 

A generation back, rural electrification was dire, and even cities had a faulting supply. Today, 97 per cent of South and Central Americans are on the grid. But the World Bank expects demand to more than double between now and 2030, and estimates that $430 billion of new investment will be needed just to keep up. Renewables are growing, but storing solar power has proved a problem at night and during the long rainy season in the tropics. And where plants have been set up using aid money, it doesn’t always benefit the locals.

Britain’s government aid arm, the Department for International Development has spent millions on East Africa’s biggest solar farm in Uganda. But, instead of supplying local needs, the power is exported to neighboring Kenya for cash. Another aid-funded solar project near Cabora Basa dam in central Mozambique transmits the output via giant pylons to South Africa.

Donald Trump’s plan is for the World Bank to fund power stations using HELE technology. Extracting coal and gas, he says, has potential to create thousands of jobs in Africa where youth unemployment can be 60 per cent or more. The CIA has identified joblessness as one reason young men drift to militias and terror groups. Supporters claim better use of the Paris Green Fund will see more people on the grid, and in work.

Those against view it as irresponsible, even a betrayal, after years of negotiation led to the first comprehensive treaty on climate. And there have been protests in Washington, London, and Paris where the agreement first took form.

But the world, says Bennie Peiser, “can’t always be viewed through the lens of rich nations who have never lived a day without electricity". 


Latin American Post | Geoff Hill 

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto 

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