The Dirty Man of Africa: South Africa, the Industrial Power-House of Africa, Is Also the Biggest Environmental Polluter. It Is Responsible for 90% of Energy Sector Carbon Dioxide Emissions on the Continent. Something Will Have to Give Soon. Neil Ford Discusses the Options

By Ford, Neil | African Business, March 2005 | Go to article overview

The Dirty Man of Africa: South Africa, the Industrial Power-House of Africa, Is Also the Biggest Environmental Polluter. It Is Responsible for 90% of Energy Sector Carbon Dioxide Emissions on the Continent. Something Will Have to Give Soon. Neil Ford Discusses the Options


Ford, Neil, African Business


While South Africa is by far the biggest economy in Africa, its success has come at a price. Just as the country's economic fortunes were built on a mining industry that yielded large quantities of gold and diamonds, South Africa's energy needs have all been built on the coal mining sector.

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The coal industry has not only provided a sizeable source of income through generating export revenues, and created a large number of jobs; it has also provided the bulk of the country's energy needs. Today, coal accounts for almost 75% of energy consumption in South Africa, covering all energy, industrial and transport uses. But coal is dirty in terms of the environment.

Based on 2002 figures, South Africa alone is responsible for 90.6% of Africa's energy sector carbon dioxide emissions. This astonishing figure is the result of two factors: South Africa is by far the biggest power generator in Africa; and the country's dependence on coal-fired plants.

By contrast, Morocco is responsible for just 2.4% of the continent's energy sector carbon emissions, Egypt 1.2% and Algeria 0.6%. Energy consumption per capita in South Africa is also high, at 101.5 British thermal units (Btu) in 2002, much higher than the 33.3Btu and 15.3Btu recorded by Egypt and Morocco respectively, although still much lower than the US's 339.1Btu.

Africa as a whole makes very little contribution to global warming, largely as a result of the lack of industrial development rather than because of intention. Most African countries rely on hydroelectric power production and while hydro schemes are not entirely carbon neutral, as the table opposite demonstrates, they do generate far lower carbon emissions than thermal plants. However, global efforts to reduce carbon emissions through emissions trading could bring the continent some much needed investment.

While mining coal can lead to water pollution, by far the biggest effects are felt through burning coal. Coal-fired plants have two main negative effects: as one of the world's biggest causes of global warming and as the biggest source of air pollution, particularly through the release of sulphur.

Little effort to cut down carbon emissions

South African environmental regulations are gradually, and at long last, cracking down on air pollution. The level of sulphur in emissions is being reduced and lead must be removed from all petrol by 2006, prompting new investment in refineries. Nevertheless, respiratory diseases caused by air pollution are still the fourth biggest cause of infant death in South Africa.

However, little effort has been made to cut carbon emissions. Coal-fired plants generate over 90% of South African electricity and this figure is unlikely to drop substantially for some time to come. Nuclear plants produce low carbon emissions but safety fears have thus far prevented the more widespread adoption of nuclear power in the country. Although South Africa has signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, it is considered a developing country and so is not required to "actively reduce greenhouse gas emissions".

Coal is by far the most important feedstock in South Africa because the country possesses huge reserves of accessible coal.

South African power company Eskom has long prided itself on its low electricity tariff and the government has sought to minimise electricity costs in order to promote economic growth. At the same time, successive apartheid-era governments were loath to increase the country's reliance on imported sources of energy: South Africa possessed plenty of coal, so coal was the obvious option for domestic energy needs. At the same time, the country has limited oil reserves, so the government encouraged the development of synthetic fuels. Coal to fuel technology was championed by Sasol and many South African cars continue to run on such synthetic fuels.

Some effort is being put into reducing the country's dependency on coal. …

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