Photograph — Fortune

Recent global events indicate that countries should intensify climate action – especially in Africa, where people hardly take scientific forecasts seriously. Africa has four primary climate zones: deserts, grasslands, tropical forests, and semiarid lands. These topographies make the continent prone to natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and landslides. In recent years, many cities and communities across sub-Saharan Africa have recorded droughts, pest outbreaks, landslides and flash floods triggered by incessant rainfalls. 

Recently in Lagos State, heavy rain triggered a flood from a canal in the Orile Agege community. Some private commuters got trapped in the floods for hours. Out of the six people it overwhelmed, the emergency rescue team could only rescue four of them. 

A similar but more severe occurrence happened in South Africa between April 11-13. On those days, heavy downpours triggered extreme floods and landslides in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. The event caused the death of 448 people, displaced over 40,000 people and destroyed more than 12,000 houses. The region recorded infrastructural damage to roads, health centres and schools. Later, on the 18th of April, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a National State of Disaster due to the severity of the losses.

These events show how much the continent is disproportionately affected by climate change. These occurrences should make South Africa (which has been the most affected) champion climate action causes. But the reverse seems to be the case as the country accelerates plans to launch one of its largest coal power plants by 2024, a step counter to climate action.

The Kusile power station

On the hills of Mpumalanga, Eskom Holdings SOC- the state-owned electrical power company- is accelerating the construction of the Kusile power station, a 4800-megawatt dry-cooled plant. The new power station will burn as much as 15 million tons of coal annually. This would undermine South Africa’s climate pledge to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions on a net basis by 2050. 

But Eskom is following through with the Kusile power project it commissioned more than a decade ago to meet increasing internal energy demands. In the last ten years, the national grid has continuously collapsed, and Eskom has since initiated intermittent power cuts and increased electricity tariffs that triggered job losses, drove away many investors, stifled business growth and increased investment risks in the country. The sporadic power cuts also shrank Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and frustrated small businesses. 

In 2019, South Africa’s FDI decreased by 15 per cent even before the economy experienced the COVID-19 shocks. The new 4800-megawatt coal plant would significantly meet its energy needs and boost FDI. But this would be at the cost of climate action. Better still, at the expense of more lives and properties.

While Eskom advances its plans to launch the new plant, environmentalists have not ceased to decry the project. A report by Newa24 suggests a transition to renewable energy. “It absolutely does not make any sense to invest in mega coal-fired power stations in the face of a climate crisis when we should be focusing on a just transition to renewable energy,” said Melita Steele, Interim Program Director of Greenpeace Africa.

Given the severe impacts of climate change across the continent, analysts estimate that by 2050, GDP will decrease by three per cent, further driving countries into poverty in Africa. Over 400 million people living in the region live below the global poverty line. More natural disasters would deepen this figure. This should give African governments (especially South Africa, the most affected) more reason to take climate action seriously.

The significance of coal power for South Africa

South Africa is the seventh biggest coal producer in the world. It has rich coal deposits, concentrated around Mpumalanga province, the northeast part of the country. This is why the majority of its coal-fired plants are situated there. Coal accounts for approximately 77 per cent of the energy supply. More so, 81 per cent of coal consumed domestically goes towards electrical power generation.

According to WordDisk, South Africa produces around 229,200 gigawatt-hours (825,000 TJ) of electricity annually. Most of which it consumes. But the country also exports about 12,000 gigawatt-hours annually to neighbouring Eswatini, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other Southern African Development Community countries that participate in the Southern African Power Pool.

Climate action and greenhouse emission

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13, Climate Action, is one of 17 SDGs established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The official mission statement of this goal is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. 

The SDG 13 has five core targets. They include strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity to climate-related disasters and integrating climate change measures into policies and planning. But not many governments in emerging economies can afford to implement a significant transition to green energy immediately. Most governments suffer poor private investments towards the cause. With growing debts in the continent, many now settle for using available resources to meet immediate internal demands. 

Other targets include building knowledge and capacity to meet climate change and implementing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Lastly, promoting mechanisms to raise capacity for planning and management. Each target includes one or more indicators that help to measure and monitor climate action progress. Indicators include the number of deaths, missing people and directly affected people attributed to disasters per 100,000 population or total greenhouse emissions generated by the year. 

Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities strengthen the greenhouse effect, causing climate change. Human-caused emissions have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide by about 50 per cent over pre-industrial levels. Electricity generation and transport are major emitters, the largest single source being coal-fired power stations with 20 per cent of GHG. 

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