Africa’s dependence on coal threatens health and wellbeing across the continent

For developing nations in the global south with coal reserves, their use seems like an obvious solution to the production of cheap energy. But as the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal is not only contributing to increasing levels of atmospheric carbon and rises in global temperatures, but also putting the health of citizens at risk through urban pollution and reductions in air quality.

Much of Africa finds itself in this position. South Africa, the second biggest economy on the continent after oil-rich Nigeria, is a prime example. With roughly 80% of the country’s energy production coming from the burning of coal, almost all South Africa’s population of 60 million people breathe in air which fails to meet World Health Organization guidelines.

Air pollution has now become one of the leading causes of premature death in Africa. Measuring pollutants is often difficult in countries with limited resources, with only seven of Africa’s 54 nations operating real-time air pollution monitors according to UNICEF. As of 2019, 6% of children in Africa lived within 50 kilometres of a ground-level monitoring station, compared to 72% of children in Europe and North America.

yellow and white excavator on rocky mountain during daytime

Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned power company, is responsible for approximately 95% of the country’s electricity generation. Its planning documents aim to reduce the company’s coal-fuelled electricity production by 50% over the next decade and a half.

However, with a power grid blighted by rolling blackouts, known locally as ‘load-shedding,’ which cut power to districts for up to four hours at a time several days each week, the ANC government continues to look to coal as a way out of the crisis. This includes the construction of new coal-powered plants to combat blackouts which have increased in number post coronavirus.

At COP27 on Tuesday, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa demanded the global north help fund a transition to renewable energies. In his speech at the opening ceremony he said: ‘Our continent only contributed one percent of the damage that’s been done to the climate, and we believe that the more industrialized countries that are more developed need to live up to the commitment that they have made.’

These commitments include pledges of support worth $8.5 bn made by the likes of the UK, US and EU nations at COP26 last year. But much of the funding pledged is bookmarked to be released in loans, adding to Africa’s debt burden. At the same time, South Africa alone is estimated to need $98 bn over five years to successfully transition.

One answer to the air quality problem is solar power, given South Africa receives 2,500 hours of sunlight every year. Morocco, at the opposite end of the continent, records very similar levels. With the help of financing from the World Bank, African Development Bank, European Investment Bank and Clean Technology Fund, the private sector there created Ouarzazate Solar Power Station.

The world’s largest concentrated solar power plant, it produces 510 Megawatts of electricity, enough to power a million UK homes, with minimal pollution emitted. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is hoping to turn its attention to geothermal energy to improve its air quality and reduce its reliance on diminishing water flows to hydroelectricity plants. It’s predicted Ethiopia could produce 10,000 Megawatts of electricity by tapping into the Earth’s heat, with the government looking to reach 3,500 Megawatts by 2030.

Photo by Artyom Korshunov


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