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South Africa can keep coal fired plants running longer, climate committee says

SOUTH Africa’s climate policy body suggested the government could delay retiring its ageing coal-fired power plants to address electricity shortages and said a power crisis had put the country on track to meet its climate goals anyway.

The ruling African National Congress has recommended that state power utility Eskom delay the decommissioning of its ageing coal-fired power stations to help minimise rolling electricity outages.

However, it is also committed to a plan – partly funded to the tune of $8.5 billion by the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union – to accelerate a shift away from coal and towards solar and wind energy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the total cost could prove 10 times higher than what Western donors are offering to finance.

“The least-cost approach is to pull the coal plants off when they reach the end of their economic life,” said Crispian Olver, executive director of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC).

This would be the point at which it costs more to maintain them than let them go.

“Moving the decommissioning … by a couple of years is … not going to fundamentally affect our NDC (nationally determined contributions to emissions reductions),” he added. “We are making good progress (on) emission reductions partly because of the extent of (power cuts) … and anaemic economic growth”.

South Africa relies on coal for electricity. As a result, it coughed out 430 megatonnes of CO2 in 2021, making it the world’s 14th biggest carbon emitter, according to data from Global Carbon Atlas. That put it ahead of Britain, Mexico and Australia, all of which are much bigger economies.

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South Africa’s national target for emissions reductions is 398-510 MtCO2e by 2025, and 350-420 MtCO2e by 2030.

“It is crucial that … South Africa’s efforts to reach its climate goals and transition to a more sustainable economy …(are) not jeopardised,” the German embassy said while admitting that Germany itself had had to delay decommissioning some coal-fired plants because of the global energy crisis.

“In South Africa, it is already cheaper to build new renewable energy and storage than maintain some of the existing Eskom power stations,” it said in a statement.

A South African government source, who declined to be named, said South African officials had met diplomats from the donor countries over the possibility of a delay on April 28.

Eskom has been implementing power cuts that last more than 10 hours a day for most households – the worst on record – crippling businesses in Africa’s most industrialised economy.