South Africa is one of the biggest carbon emitters on the African continent, and its coal-powered energy source has long been questioned for its lack of sustainability. 

On Nov. 2 a deal was struck at the COP26 Climate Conference, where European Union member states and the United States have partnered with South Africa to help move the middle-income country away from coal power and towards green energy sources. 

“The partnership that we have established today is a watershed moment not only for our own just transition, but for the world as a whole,” said South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa in a statement. “It is proof that we can take ambitious climate action while increasing our energy security, creating jobs, and harnessing new opportunities for investment, with support from developed economies.”

The partnership between South Africa and the wealthy nations which include the US, the UK, Germany, France, and the EU, is the first of its kind, and will involve the disbursement of $8.5 billion over the next three to five years to help the country shift towards a low-carbon economy. 

This green funding will go towards establishing renewable energy sources in the country, repurposing coal power stations (which the country aims to phase out in the next 15 years), investing in new sustainable energy sectors including green hydrogen and electric vehicles, and making the country’s economy less reliant on fossil fuels. Specific details on how these plans will come to fruition have not been announced as yet. 

South Africa’s current reliance on coal power is a serious problem. Its electricity supplying power utility, Eskom, is not only the 12th-biggest carbon emitter in the world, it has faced significant issues keeping the lights on in South African homes, with several technical issues resulting in scheduled power cuts of up to four hours a day in recent weeks. In fact, power cuts were even announced on the very same day that this green energy partnership was disclosed.

Also significant is that South Africa’s coal mining and processing efforts have led it to be the biggest emitter of sulphur dioxide in the world, indicating the gravity of its negative impact on the local and global environment. 

At a COP26 press conference announcing the partnership, United States President Joe Biden detailed why the deal is important. 

“By closing South African coal plants ahead of schedule and investing in clean power alternatives for the people of South Africa and supporting an equitable and inclusive transition in South Africa’s coal sector,” he said, “we are following through on the pledge the G7 partners made in Cornwall [at this year’s G7 Summit] to accelerate the transition away from coal in developing countries.”

At the same press conference, President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen also noted that it was crucial to support decarbonising projects both within the EU, and in vulnerable countries outside of the EU. 

“This partnership is a global first and could become a template on how to support just transition around the world,” she said. “By joining forces, we can speed up the phasing out of coal in partner countries, while supporting vulnerable communities that depend on it.”

Several South African-based green organizations have reacted to the announcement, with a few, such as the Life After Coal campaign, noting that while it’s a “promising start,” it’s only a first step. 

Speaking to the Daily Maverick, Greenpeace Africa’s Happy Khambule indicated that the partnership lacked detail and that despite the climate financing boost, there is sure to be a funding gap.

 “The deal is quite interesting. The amount which has been allocated to address the problem is far too small,” he said. “When you look at it, you have to consider that just in the electricity sector, one player holds about R400 billion (almost $26 billion) worth of debt that is sitting there… unusable assets as well that are hanging around.”

“The partnership, if it is seen as a catalyst for more mobilisation in finance, then it’s a good thing,” he added. “But then if it’s not… it doesn’t really address the scale of the issue.”


Defend the Planet

COP26: South Africa Gets $8.5B Boost to Wean Off Coal Power

By Khanyi Mlaba