Miner Thokozani Mtshweni, 37, looks exhausted as he prepares for a 12-hour shift, crouching under a carport to avoid the blazing sun. He fastens his belt which is weighted by an oxygen tank and gas detection tool.
An hour’s drive from Johannesburg is the Khutala Colliery, one of more than 100 coal mines and a dozen coal-fired power stations scattered across the industrial landscape of the northeastern province of Mpumalanga, an area known as South Africa’s coal belt.
Workers, dressed in dirty yellow overalls, breathe in the hazy air as they wait to board trucks that will drive them to an underground shaft.
“Closing these mines would have a big impact on our lives,” Mtshweni told AFP. “It would be chaos”.
Coal is the foundation of the South African economy, employing nearly 100,000 people and accounting for 80 percent of electricity production.
But the future of the sector is uncertain as Africa’s most industrialized economy tries to rid itself of its carbon-emitting fuel in line with global efforts to tackle climate change.
Last year, the government secured $8.5 billion in loans and grants from a group of wealthy countries to fund the transition to greener alternatives.
The arduous negotiations over how to spend the money are expected to end before the COP27 climate summit in Egypt in November.
Supporters hope the money can serve as a catalyst to transform the energy landscape into what is one of the 12 biggest polluters in the world.
But questions remain about the country’s ability to rapidly advance toward its goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Money and jobs
“Significantly more money will be needed,” said Daniel Mminele, who heads the finance task team for a climate commission set up by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
A study from Stellenbosch University in South Africa estimated the figure at $250 billion over the next 30 years.
Recent studies suggest more jobs will be created than lost by going green, but analysts say the swap won’t be painless.
The coal industry is concentrated in Mpumalanga, which accounts for about 80 percent of all coal production.
“We need coal,” said Isaac Maumapelo, section manager of the Khutala mine, as piles of black stuff are crushed behind him.
“The towns, the villages in and around Mpumalanga were created by the coal mines.”
Unions fear that job losses will not be absorbed by the sustainable sector. Unemployment is nationally above 30 percent.
“Wind and solar energy are not developed in South Africa, but manufactured elsewhere,” said energy analyst Tshepo Kgadima.
After spending a decade in the pits, Mtshweni, the miner, is one of those who fear for their future.
“Everyone depends on this coal to provide for their loved ones,” he says.
International pressure on South Africa to clean up its act is viewed with antipathy by some.
Europe’s renewed appetite for coal in the wake of the gas crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine is often cited as evidence of double standards.
“Coal will be around for a while and while we want to work together… Let’s have our own agenda that realistically recognizes South Africa’s socio-economic imperatives,” said Mike Teke, CEO of Seriti, the operator of Khutala Colliery .
No way back
Still, things are starting to move.
Khutala Colliery is near Kendal, an industrial town surrounded by coal silos and thick plumes of smoke.
The mine feeds a nearby power plant – one of the world’s largest – operated by state energy company Eskom.
The factory and adjacent mines are surrounded by maize and cattle farms.
Cattle graze under the gray polluted skies. Chunks of coal lie on the side of the road as trucks come and go.
Nevertheless, Seriti has recently set up a green energy branch to invest in wind and solar.
“We need to diversify in line with what might come,” Teke says.
Climate activists have tried to force the government to push the accelerator by going to court.
In a first win this year, judges ordered authorities to reduce pollution in Mpumalanga, which Greenpeace says has the dirtiest air in the world.
While Eskom’s aging factories struggle to produce enough energy to keep the lights on, the government has put plans in place to ramp up renewables.
Acting is a must, says Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, an economist at the Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies think tank, warning that the cost of holding on to coal will be much higher in the long run.
The European Union plans to introduce a carbon tax on imports — a move that could be followed by other countries and could hit economies like South Africa hard, he warns.
“If we don’t decarbonise, the job losses will be significant. We will lose our access to markets and finance,” he says.
“Not switching is not an option. The consequences will be severe”.
Africa sounds cautious on net zero target ahead of COP27
© 2022 AFP
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