Cape Town If you drive east from the South African economic metropolis of Johannesburg in the direction of the Kruger National Park, you will pass a series of dreary industrial cities after a two-hour drive. Between Middelburg, Witbank and Belfast is the so-called Highveld, a sun-baked plateau dotted with coal-fired mines and chimneys.
Almost 80 percent of South Africa’s coal is mined here in the “coal belt”. It is estimated that 60 billion tonnes of mineable coal reserves lie beneath the eastern Highveld. The country’s energy supply could hardly be simpler – but not dirtier and more harmful to the climate.
In the World Climate Conference in Egypt moves Africa’s sooty energy economy into focus. The strategy of the West, as emphasized by the EU and the USA in Sharm el-Sheikh, be clear: It is important to support Africa in the transition to green energies. US President Joe Biden said at the beginning of the week that the company would help “clean energies to thrive in South Africa’s economy”.
In fact, some rich countries, including Germany, decided at the beginning of the year to set up energy partnerships in order to promote the energy transition in selected emerging countries.
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South Africa should function as a flagship project: the USA, Great Britain and the European Union (EU) will be available to the country on the Cape over the next five years in order to replace coal, which has so far clearly dominated there, with wind turbines and solar systems. One billion euros of this comes from Germany.
The initiative, which goes by the name of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), hopes to later expand the project to other emerging markets. Indonesia and Vietnam in particular would be countries that could drastically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by converting their energy production. This Friday will be on the World Climate Conference further details of the program will be presented.
But the green vision of the West is opposed to a sooty reality, as climate protectionists calculate: Europe’s electricity producers are among the top customers in the South African coal belt around Middelburg, and European customers of all people bring the mining companies active there high profits.
Since natural gas prices have risen massively in the wake of the Ukraine war, Western governments are increasingly trying to get coal out South Africa, whose degradation they actually want to stop. When the power plant in Mehrum near Hanover in Lower Saxony was started up again at the beginning of August, the fuel for it came from South Africa.
In view of the sudden energy bottlenecks, fossil fuels are becoming increasingly important. Germany, for example, is currently massively increasing its coal imports from South Africa: While it still received a little more than a million tons from there in 2021, demand will increase drastically again this year, as figures from April of this year show, for example.
Significantly higher coal exports to the EU
In this period alone, the volume increased tenfold compared to the same month last year. According to data provider VesselsValue, South Africa’s most important coal export port in Richards Bay shipped more than 2.4 million tons of coal in April 2022, of which 560,000 tons were destined for Europe. In the same period last year, only one freighter had left Richards Bay for Europe, loaded with almost 60,000 tons of coal.
In South Africa itself, the ambivalent policy of the Europeans is registered with astonishment. “While the industrialized countries are asking us to phase out our coal-fired power plants, they are starting them up again themselves,” criticizes South Africa’s Environment Minister Barbara Creecy.
The new deal to switch to renewables more quickly could still cause problems for South Africa in the future. If the country’s government were to switch off just one coal-fired power plant at the moment, its own, badly battered energy supply could possibly collapse.
For 15 years, the country on the Cape has been plagued by blackouts due to a power buffer that has shrunk to zero. It was only in September that a new low was reached with outages of up to ten hours a day.
In addition, the country has long struggled with enormous logistical problems in transporting its coal from the mines in the provinces of Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. The state transport giant Transnet lacks locomotives, freight cars and trained personnel. Vandalism on the rail network and the theft of copper cables have also escalated to such an extent that Transnet has not been able to meet its delivery obligations for a long time – and at times even had to completely suspend them.
In view of the already desolate energy infrastructure, it will be all the more difficult to put the Cape’s “coal junkie” on withdrawal, says Environment Minister Greecy. However, this cannot be completely ruled out. “It’s entirely possible to gradually change the energy mix and increase the share of renewables at the same time,” she says.
Nevertheless, she is convinced that her country will remain dependent on coal in the medium term. Their replacement will only succeed if, in the end, an entire industry, including suppliers, is created around renewable energies. However, the 8.5 billion dollars in the industrialized countries are far from enough for such a comprehensive structural change. Especially since a large part of the money is based on credit.
Researchers from the University of Stellenbosch put the cost of the South African energy transition at around 250 billion dollars – almost thirty times what could flow into the country over the next five years.