South Africa tells Western envoys it needs funds to shift from coal

Steam rises at sunrise from the Lethabo Power Station, a coal-fired power station owned by state power utility ESKOM near Sasolburg, South Africa

South Africa told visiting climate envoys from the United States, Britain, Germany and France that it needs major financial support to move away from coal, the environment department said on Wednesday.

South Africa is the world’s 12th biggest carbon emitter, according to the Global Carbon Atlas, emitting 479 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 2019. It is also by far Africa’s largest emitter.

This month, the government adopted a more ambitious emissions reduction target of 350-420 Mt CO2e per year by 2030, weeks before the United Nations COP26 climate summit, where it hopes to wring money out of rich countries for a swifter transition to renewable energy.

“While South Africa is committed to a just transition (to cleaner energy sources), we need certainty of…financing … to accelerate this transition. We do need an irrevocable agreement that we can sign at COP26,” the environment department said.

South Africa’s struggling state power utility, which produces most of its power by burning coal – more than 80% of the country’s power is produced this way – wants billions of dollars to replace its heavily polluting coal plants with cleaner alternatives.

South Africa’s delegation comprising the environment, trade and public enterprises ministers and deputy finance and foreign ministers told the Western climate envoys on Tuesday that the financial support should include concessional and grant funding which takes into account current fiscal constraints.

The environment department cited repurposing retiring coal plants, investment in low-carbon power generation and grid infrastructure, and electric vehicle manufacturing as goals.

This week, consultancy Meridian Economics proposed a new funding model for the shift away from coal that it said could unlock billions of dollars of cheap financing.

It would involve the government taking out long-term debt, with the effective borrowing cost lowered either by wealthy nations guaranteeing the debt or South Africa receiving cash incentives for its emissions reductions.

A portion of the money raised would be earmarked for a fund to support thousands of workers losing jobs in coal plants – a political headache for a government that needs union support.

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