Africa and the Arab world are key to a clean-coal alliance

Egypt, Oman, Iran, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates all have clean-coal plants on the drawing board or under way.
Sunday 18/11/2018
Vital issue.  A farmer drives a  tractor through smoke at a paddy field near a road leading to  Cairo.     (Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG - Sharing technology on clean coal, Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Marek Magierowski says, “lies at the heart of our relations with India.”

He made the comment on a recent visit to New Delhi. Like many in Africa and Asia, both Poland and India get most of their electrical power from fossil fuel.

Egypt is building a clean-coal plant run with expertise from China. Iran and the United Arab Emirates are doing likewise and Japan and the United States have considered pooling research.

Australia and South Africa are leaders in carbon capture and a cleaner burn and Colombia, which has one of the world’s largest coal mines, is helping Latin America along the same path.

So why isn’t there a clean-coal alliance?

“We need a global sharing of research and the climate change summit in Poland next month could be where it happens,” said Samson Bada, a Nigerian engineer at Witwatersrand University (Wits) in Johannesburg.

Bada said the cost of electricity has become a political issue around the globe “and a lack of power comes up at every election right across the developing world.” Economies in Asia, Africa and the Middle East “will not stop using fossil fuel, no matter what activists in New York or London may say so the task is to make it cleaner,” Bada said.

Rosemary Falcon, a recently retired professor in charge of clean-coal research at Wits, said an “alliance is crucial and it would need to cover oil, gas and coal because all these put off smoke if you don’t use them properly and there’s an overlap in the chemistry.

“How can anyone suggest a poor country without the technology should be left to pollute the air with coal or gas when we know how to burn it cleanly? Obviously, this is something we must share with everyone.”

Falcon said the 24th Session of the Conference of the Parties — COP24 — scheduled for December 3-14 in Katowice, Poland, could be the place to build “even an informal union where we can share the science.”

Falcon said coal was the cheapest and most reliable source of energy. “Sun and wind only work some of the time and there has to be a baseload, topped up with renewables,” she said.

However, she added, any association must include all continents. “People forget that Tanzania has 4 billion tonnes of coal or Colombia with its huge open-cut mines. Africa, Asia and Latin America must all be part of the mix.”

Despite its huge oil reserves, she said the Arab world relied on a mix for electricity including gas and coal. “Even so, it’s a voice that’s often left out,” Falcon said.

“I’m passionate about the environment,” said Jacob Masiala, like Bada, one of Falcon’s former students at Wits, “but those who want to see an end to fossil fuel need to spend more time on the ground in Africa.”

Masiala said he believes in climate change but laments that “it’s become an obsession for the pampered and well-off.” The priorities for poorer countries are different, he said.

“When you have no job and live in a shack without electricity and your family is always hungry, you don’t talk about climate change. You worry about the next meal, not the next 50 years,” Masiala said.

The idea of an alliance is not new. Indian Coal Minister Piyush Goyal, for instance, has been hinting at it for years. “We must share technology for clean coal because this will be the mainstay in India’s fuel mix,” he said at a meeting in Japan in 2015.

US Secretary for Energy Rick Perry spoke about it on a visit to Cape Town in 2017, saying the supply of electricity across the developing world was not just a social issue but “a matter of national security for the United States.”

Perry said that without power, poor countries were unable to industrialise, leading to “poverty and a lack of jobs that drives young people to join militia.”

It was a factor, he said, in the war on terror.

So why no treaty? Could it happen in Poland, home to one of the world’s most ambitious clean-coal programmes?

The first step is money. Even an NGO would need a secretariat with an office and a media team to get the word out. Fees from members could meet the cost but someone must kick it off.

At the United States Energy Association, a grouping of public and private energy-related organisations, executive director Barry Worthington said it was also a matter of politics. “Energy is tricky,” he said.

“We’ve seen how oil has been used as a weapon in wars across the Middle East but gas is just as vital during the winter in countries like Finland or Ukraine. For now, they rely on a Russian pipeline and this is a huge factor in their relations with Moscow,” Worthington said.

Taiwan has the world’s largest clean-coal plant, he said, “so how do you put them at the same table as China?”

One could say the same about Turkey and Saudi Arabia or the United States and North Korea.

He said this made it vital to set up an alliance that was politically neutral.

“Emissions blowing south from Pakistan don’t stop when they reach the border with India. “Ideally, there must be space for everyone at the table,” Worthington said.

He said the Paris Accord on climate change might serve as a template. “Some in the room are on less than good terms but they work to a common goal,” he said. “Why can’t we do the same thing with clean coal?”

COP24 is contentious because Poland has angered the European Union by building coal-powered generators and is planning more.

Developing countries, however, may be sympathetic to the Polish view.

Zimbabwe has among the largest coal deposits in Africa. Tanzania has a new plant on the border with Mozambique and Kenya is building its first near Lamu on the coast. South Africa is a leading exporter and gets more than 90% of its own power from coal.

Africa is often dismissed as a bit player but, for a clean-coal alliance, it could lead the way. Asia is of the same mind. India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines are growing their use of coal.

Energy ministers from the Association of South-East Asian Nations met in October in Singapore and their communique included a plan to share clean-coal technology, noting that fossil fuel will remain in play until at least 2040.

Real growth is expected in the Middle East. Egypt, Oman, Iran, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates all have clean-coal plants on the drawing board or under way.

The World Bank refuses to fund anything using oil, gas or coal but hundreds of projects across the globe have been funded by China, India or the private sector.

World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim admits he’s getting pushback. Leaders in Africa, he said, complained that the World Bank would not let them “have baseload power because we can’t use a single drop of fossil fuel for our own energy needs.”

“I can tell you, when I hear that, it’s compelling to me,” he said.

However, he and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde ruled out any change though the United States, the largest donor to the World Bank and IMF, has made clear it wants an end to the ban.

Masiala said any policy that ignored Africa was doomed. “We hold nearly one-quarter of the seats at the United Nations but millions of our people are still without electricity,” he said. “Yet there are those who seem to view themselves as our overlords.”

Bada agreed, saying: “That’s why we need an alliance of countries using fossil fuel. It would put us all on a more even footing, from big players like the United States and China, across to Africa and Latin America and, of course, the Arab world.”

Falcon says she has no doubt it will happen. “The idea of an alliance may have started with India and the United States but smaller countries are now pushing it,” she said, “and I think we could see Poland take the lead at the COP meeting in December.

“I guess there will be protesters in Katowice telling us there’s no such thing as clean coal but anyone with a brain has moved on. The focus now is on working together so coal can be part of the plan on climate change.”

Open to debate. Smoke rises from the cooling towers of the Matla Power Station, a coal-fired power plant in South Africa.                                                                                                                                               (Reuters)
Open to debate. Smoke rises from the cooling towers of the Matla Power Station, a coal-fired power plant in South Africa.