Developing countries remain in the dark, increasingly frustrated by what India’s chief economic adviser termed the west’s “carbon imperialism”. Investment in coal-powered plants in African countries could mean the difference for millions of people between being able to turn on the lights at night or living in darkness.
The UK recently made headlines by announcing that it had gone for three days without using coal, a new record. During the coal-free 76 hours, the majority of the UK’s electricity supply came from gas, followed by wind, nuclear, biomass and solar. While many commentators touted this, the longest period Britain has gone without coal since the Industrial Revolution, as an important step towards reducing global emissions, the story isn’t so simple.
While the UK has greatly increased its renewable capacity in recent years, the only way it was able to power the country without coal for a few days was by relying heavily on natural gas, which is very, very far from being a green fuel. While burning natural gas does emit less carbon dioxide than coal, it also emits methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas. Studies show leakage rates of methane are about 3 percent—while that might not sound like much, that amount of methane warms the planet more than CO2 does. Yet somehow, public opinion still favours natural gas as a cleaner replacement for fossil fuels.
While congratulating the UK for managing three days without coal, the press also overlooked the fact that Britain can afford to ramp down its use of coal now because it’s reaped the benefits of the fossil fuel for more than 150 years. Coal was the backbone of the modern British economy through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, powering the country’s industrial revolution. This irrefutable fact explains why developing nations are increasingly voicing their frustration that wealthy countries want to deny them the same chance to use their natural resources to bankroll economic growth.
Many African countries, including Mozambique, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, are known to have vast reserves of coal. South Africa’s state-owned utility Eskom estimates that the country’s 53 billion tonnes in coal reserves are enough to fuel the country for the next 200 years.
The prospect of using these substantial resources is particularly alluring given that large swaths of these countries remain unelectrified. More than 600 million Africans still don’t have access to electricity, causing them to burn dangerous and polluting biomass and undermining their economic growth.
While Africa is making great strides in adding renewable energy capacity, the continent is so energy poor that closing this gap solely with renewables is unrealistic in the medium term. At current rates of growth, Africa won’t achieve full electrification until 2080. Investment in coal-powered plants in these countries could mean the difference for millions of people between being able to turn on the lights at night or living in darkness. These coal-rich countries are looking to capitalise upon their resources – much like the same Western countries who are now pushing a renewables-only model did for more than a hundred years.
This pressure on developing nations to deploy renewable energy solutions they cannot afford is both political and financial. The UK and international organisations such as the European Investment Bank and the World Bank stopped funding coal plants in developing countries. At the time, the World Bank stated it would provide financing in exceptional cases where no viable alternatives existed. Since then, however, only one coal project, in Kosovo, has been considered for a loan.
The consequences of this overly restrictive policy? Developing countries remain in the dark, increasingly frustrated by what India’s chief economic adviser termed the west’s “carbon imperialism”. They have started taking matters into their own hands, as illustrated by the African Development Bank (ADB) recently breaking from other international financial institutions and agreeing to continue funding new coal projects. The President of the ADB emphasized that “Africa must develop its energy sector with what it has” and underscored the fact that “it is almost impossible to start a business, teach or provide healthcare without power and light”.