SA feels its way through the complex global pollution debate

CAPE TOWN — It would seem from her reported comments on the impending round of global climate talks that South Africa’s deputy energy minister, Thembisile Majola, is at least a pragmatist, unaffected by the heated debate on both sides of the energy supply-source electric fence. She draws the line at copying and pasting First World solutions onto developing countries and accepts that coal-fired power stations will remain on SA’s event horizon for the foreseeable future, despite ever more cost-effective alternatives. The old stumbling block of economic development versus pollution reduction for developing countries will remain a top agenda item when it comes to equitable distribution of responsibility for reducing harmful emissions. There’s no doubt that Majola’s team’s will demand a progress report on the $100 billion a year transfer to 2020 promise to support developing nations transition their energy, industrial and agriculture systems. Choosing sides in this highly politicised debate will only aggravate matters. Seeking a pragmatic balance between economic development and what is feasible and affordable in reducing existing power generation pollution must surely be the best approach? That, and holding regional power station officials accountable for staying within acceptable emission standards. At least, for now. – Chris Bateman

By Anna Hirtenstein, Mathew Carr and Brian Parkin

(Bloomberg) – South Africa’s deputy energy minister expects the latest round of climate talks will make global markets cleaner starting next year and defended her nation’s coal use as a way to reduce poverty.

“With the Germans, they can say ‘We’re moving from driving a Corolla to a BMW,’ while we are still trying to get the bicycle,” said Thembisile Majola, in an interview in London. “They’re talking about different technologies, we’re talking about access.”

Her comments reflect a 30-year debate between rich and emerging economies that’s set to continue at COP24, the international climate conference in Katowice, Poland, in December. That meeting is meant to finalise the rules of the 2015 Paris climate deal while President Donald Trump is seeking to pull the US out of it. Meanwhile, economic costs and deaths from storms, floods, landslides and forest fires mount around the world.

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Rich nation emission cuts blown away by poorer country gains. Graph: Bloomberg.

“Globally there’s a commitment because the reality is that it’s out there,” Majola said. “I actually believe it’s not an optional thing because this is not something that’s just been left to governments.”

Her confidence in the success of the UN talks seems surprising, given a lack of progress in many of the world’s rich nations. Last week in the US midterms, a ballot to install a carbon price in Washington State failed. In Canada, Ontario province backed out of its carbon market. Coal-and-gas-rich Australia earlier this year ousted its prime minister as he attempted to beef up climate policy.

In Germany, a government-established commission that’s been running this year to decide coal’s fate in Europe’s biggest economy could make a decision around the time of the climate talks.

“They could do it if they really wanted because if the commission does not deliver a result, the government can decide,” said Franz-Josef Wodopia, the managing director of the VDKi coal importers group. “They have to think about their chance to present a result as a commission.”

The industrialised West is responsible for most of the emissions that have led to climate change, but emerging countries are catching up fast. Some poorer nations argue that they shouldn’t have to bear an equal amount of the cost and should still be allowed to prioritise economic growth over pollution reduction.

Thembisile Majola
Bilateral meeting between Deputy Minister of Energy Thembisile Majola and IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the IAEA 61st General Conference.

A key element of the Paris agreement that was signed in 2015 by nearly 200 nations was the promise for the developed world to transfer $100 billion a year by 2020 to the developing world to support them in transitioning their energy, industrial and agriculture systems. South Africa is looking for progress on that goal.

“There can’t be a transition that’s one-size fits all, we need a transition that brings everyone along because there are different levels of pollution,” South Africa’s Majola said.

Her nation hopes to attract about $25 billion of foreign investment in the next five years for its energy industry. The biggest opportunity is in networks, upgrading the country’s aging transmission and distribution systems. South Africa technically has enough power supply to match its demand, but the electrons are frequently not able to reach their destination because of the unreliable networks, so finance is needed.

Many of the nation’s regions are still suffering economic depression and dealing with tuberculosis, which is linked to cooking with coal. “You are not going to say cut off coal and what you cook with is not my business – I need to say what I’m replacing it with when I say cut down on the coal,” Majola said.