Andreas Späth

We've got too much coal

2013-01-21 15:36

Andreas Späth

If you’re under the impression that the age of coal is over, you’d better think again. In December, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a report which forecasts that coal will challenge oil as the world’s biggest source of energy within the next five years. With China and India taking the lead, IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven announced that we will be burning about 1.2 billion more tonnes of the black stuff in 2017 than today – “equivalent to the current coal consumption of Russia and the United States combined.”

South Africa is right in the middle of the global coal industry. In fact, we have way more of the stuff than is good for us: some 28 billion tons of proven reserves, which at the current annual mining rate of around 253 million tons will only be depleted in 110 years.

“That’s a good thing!” you might say. “After all, much of this country’s industrial economy and wealth were built on the back of easily accessible, cheap coal.”

There have been some massive downsides too, however, including air pollution, acid rain and a per capita carbon footprint rivalling those of many developed countries. About 70% of the coal mined in South Africa is used domestically and approximately 70% of that is burned in power stations to generate almost all of our electricity. Most of the rest (20%) is turned into synthetic petroleum products by SASOL.

The pesky fact that our coal-burning habit has us pumping huge quantities of climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere every year is becoming a major headache.

In international climate change negotiations, the SA government has committed itself to doing its share to keep average global temperature rise to below 2oC compared to pre-industrial levels, a figure that may prevent run-away climate change - if we’re lucky. Government endorsed a set of Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS) for transforming the economy to achieve this goal.

In its National Climate Response White Paper published in October 2011, government announced that within two years, carbon budgets would be drawn up for those sectors of the economy that emit significant quantities of greenhouse gasses. These carbon budgets will define the emissions allowable under the 2oC regime.

Based on one of the scenarios included in the LTMS – the one “required by science” to make the 2oC target – WWF-SA has estimated a total greenhouse gas emissions budget for the country for the period from 2010 and 2050 of about 16.4 GtCO2e (gigatons of CO2 equivalent), meaning that during those 40 years, we can afford to emit greenhouse gasses equivalent to a grand total of 16.4 billion tons of CO2 if we want stand a decent chance of maintaining a reasonably stable climate. This figure includes all of our emissions, not just those due to coal.

So how does our coal industry stack up in this calculus? Not well at all, I’m afraid.

A recent report compiled by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and commissioned by WWF calculates that at current rates, a total of at least 19.2 GtCO2e of South African coal reserves will be used locally between 2010 and 2050. In other words, if we carry on as we are now, just the coal we’ll burn during this period is going to produce the equivalent of nearly three billion more tons of CO2 than we’re aloud to emit if we are to stay within our climate-safe budget.

And those are conservative figures. SA coal miners, including Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Exxaro and SASOL, are investing in the development of their as yet unproven coal resources. If only a third of these actually come into production, the report says, this would add another 19 GtCO2e of emissions.

I for one am intrigued to find out exactly what share of the national carbon budget government is planning to allocate to coal by October this year. The bottom line is simple though: if our coal industry continues to operate as it is now and if we as a nation remain shackled to it, our chances of making an effective contribution to halting climate change are zero.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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