The recent spate of plans for coal-fired power plants in Sub-Saharan Africa has generated opposition on environmental grounds. Campaigners and some European governments argue that such projects are irresponsible in terms of carbon emissions. Yet while the contribution to climate change is certainly unwelcome, such criticism misses a lot of wider points.
South Africa has been a coal producer and consumer of global importance for decades, but the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa has never consumed much coal. However, a 1.2 GW project is planned by Zuma Energy in Okobo in Nigeria and a 2 GW plant is to be developed on the Ghanaian coast by China’s Shenzhen Energy Corp. and Ghana’s own Volta River Authority. In addition, a string of plants are planned in two Southern African states with large coal reserves of their own, Botswana and Mozambique.
Most recently, Power China and two Kenyan firms, Gulf Energy and Centrum, announced advanced plans to build and operate a 1,050 MW coal-fired plant at Lamu on the Kenyan coast, at the heart of a proposed huge new port and industrial complex. A $1.2 billion loan has already been agreed with Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. However, in this instance, Kenya’s Energy Regulatory Authority has rejected a licence application for the project.
Criticism of such schemes in terms of the effect on air quality is entirely justified. The Global Burden of Disease Project earlier this year calculated that more than 5.5 million people die every year around the world because of air pollution, much of it caused by coal. This is appalling. But most of the flack aimed at Sub-Saharan Africa at present relates to climate change not local air pollutants.
Accusations that African countries are being carbon negligent when they sanction coal plants seem unfair. Climate change has largely been caused by the industrialized world, to a large extent through coal consumption. The carbon emissions and coal demand of Sub-Saharan Africa are still a tiny fraction of those of developed nations, even of Western Europe after years of carbon restrictions. At the same time, millions of Africans still lack access to electricity, unlike their European counterparts.
Coal-fired plants are to be developed in some African countries for the first time ironically because global warming is making rainfall more variable in some parts of the continent. This will almost certainly reduce power production at hydro schemes, including in Ghana and Kenya.
In addition, lower international demand for coal has made it a cheap feedstock option for a time, although prices are now recovering. A little understanding would not go amiss. If the international community really wants Africa to have plentiful power supplies without the climate implications, then helping to fund low carbon alternatives would be a better strategy.