Coal for South Africa Now? No.

March 22nd's Washington Post contained an op-ed article by South Africa's Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan. In it, he argues that South Africa needs World Bank funding to build 4800 Megawatts of coal-powered electricity generation to serve the development needs of the country and surrounding countries.

The article is a plea to the World Bank to support a $3.75 billion loan to help them make large capital investments in energy projects. He states that most of the money will fund the coal powered generation with about $750 million going to fund renewables and efficiency. Although the exact values are not stated in the article, it appears that well over 90% of the new generation that would be built from this money will be coal-fired. And any coal-fired plant is likely to remain in operation for decades--even as the climate continues to destabilize.

From the article: "A strong body of opinion holds that multilateral development banks should be discouraged from funding coal-burning power projects with carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. We share this concern but, after careful consideration, have concluded that the course we have chosen is the only responsible way forward. "

The World Bank should not acquiesce to this plea for several reasons:

1) Why does Minister Gordhan believe that South Africa is somehow more entitled to stray from the goal of eliminating coal-fired generation--or at least not fund it with international development funds--than any other country. One would doubt that he would suggest that the same exception be made for any country that could state, "If there were any other way to meet our power needs as quickly or as affordably as our present circumstances demand, or on the required scale, we would obviously prefer technologies -- wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear -- that leave little or no carbon footprint." "Affordably" being the key word. Coal is cheap almost everywhere, so any country could claim the same point of view as South Africa, and the developing world would just continue down an unsustainable path. I would ask Minister Gordhan which countries should be denied the type of funding he is requesting if they were to make a similar argument.

2) There is nothing in this opinion article that might be argued in another just like it ten years from now. If now is the wrong time for South Africa to start moving in a different direction, what assurance is there that a few years from now similar economic or energy-related pressures will not create an identical op-ed? If weaning off of fossil fuels is the right thing to do, then now is the time to start--not some undefined point in the future.

In February, the Minister gave his budget speech, in which he said, "Climate change and concerns over global energy supply present both challenges and opportunities for South Africa. Industries must be helped to manage scarce resources more efficiently and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through appropriate pricing of energy. This is necessary to enable investment in sustainable technologies. Green economy initiatives will create new opportunities for enterprise development, job creation and the renewal of commercial and residential environments. This must play a part in our new growth path."

This op-ed seemingly ignores that sentiment, pleading that the World Bank fund this project, in which over 90% of the energy resulting from the project is devoted not just to fossil fuels, but the dirtiest fossil fuel of all--coal.

"(We) have concluded that the course we have chosen is the only responsible way forward. " he writes in today's op-ed. He is wrong. In fact, the only responsible way forward is to embrace the low carbon future instead of relying on the unsustainable technologies of the past.

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