We denigrate coal as a stable source of electricity at our peril
Rob Jeffrey argues emerging economies will suffer if coal is taken out of the energy equation
Many articles suggest clean energy will save the planet, but one published by The Guardian in the middle of 2015 entitled "Clean energy won’t save us" is true for many reasons.
The main objectives of emerging economies, in particular, must be to reduce poverty, inequality and unemployment. This can only be achieved by increasing the economic growth rate in these countries. It is ill-considered to restrict the amount of electricity generated by coal. Such a plan does not take into account some of the real economic and social problems of achieving such a goal.
Modern coal plants are more efficient and create less pollution and substantially reduced greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) than previous-generation coal power plants. In many emerging countries such as SA, India, Indonesia and other Asean countries, modern-generation coal technology remains by far the cheapest source of generating a stable, secure and dispatchable supply of baseload electricity. Electricity remains the essential driver of economic growth and prosperity.
These countries, excluding SA, acknowledge these facts and have major, ongoing plans to significantly increase electricity output from coal and gas. Not surprisingly, they have higher current and planned economic growth rates. Their current and planned growth rates exceed 5%. SA’s sustainable longer-term economic growth outlook is less than 2.8% per annum and is currently less than 1%.
The logic of believing that climate change will be solved only by reducing fossil fuel-based electricity, particularly coal in SA, and failing to introduce nuclear by significantly increasing wind-generated electricity is fallacious and any attempts will come at great economic and social cost.
A brief examination of some facts and figures reveals the irrationality of the vested financial and idealistic interest driving the plans to substantially reduce electricity production from coal.
In many emerging countries such as SA, India, Indonesia and other Asean countries, modern-generation coal technology remains by far the cheapest source of generating a stable, secure and dispatchable supply of baseload electricity
Calculations indicate that reducing coal-fired electricity globally and particularly in SA would have a small impact on global warming as projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This depends on whether human beings do play the major role in any long-term impact on global temperature change. This theory is being disputed by an increasing number of respected scientists. The Bray and Von Storch International Survey of Climate Scientists in 2015-16 reveals 75% are convinced there is global warming, but only 49% are convinced human beings are behind the warming.
To believe humans are the major driver of climate change when nature has been doing this over a far greater temperature range for 4-billion years is illogical and arrogant.
It is estimated that total global coal-fired electricity generation accounts for a potential global temperature increase of about 4.8% of the postulated increase in temperature of 6ºC by 2100.
This would result in a potential 0.29ºC reduction in temperature if global coal were eliminated by 2100.
Significantly, if a saving of 33% is made through reduced emissions output by global coal, it may reduce the anticipated change in the temperature increase of 33% multiplied by 0.29ºC or 0.096ºC by 2100.
This amounts to 0.0011ºC per annum over the remaining years of this century.
As SA is responsible for only 1.1% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, then all other things being equal, total emissions from SA’s coal production is 1.1% of 0.29ºC, ie 0.0032ºC.
SA’s contribution of reducing its coal usage for electricity by 33% from current levels and moving to renewables would reduce global temperature by 0.0011ºC by 2100.
But all other things are not equal, because SA is a heavy user of coal for electricity and energy. Adjusting the figures for this major point, it is calculated that the impact by South African coal-fired power stations on global temperatures amounts to only 0.058ºC by 2100.
If coal usage is reduced by 33%, the reduction would amount to no more than 33% of 0.058ºC, ie 0.0193ºC by 2100. This works out at 0.00023ºC per year.
It is estimated that the cost of the carbon tax and the renewable programme through higher prices, unstable electricity supply and lower economic growth will reduce GDP by 2035 by about R1-trillion to R1.5-trillion.
Bjorn Lomborg, president and founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and a visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School, wrote in a recent article that based on UN figures, if every country were to make all promised carbon cuts, the Paris treaty’s 2016-2030 aims would reduce temperature rises by 0.207ºC.
Lomborg calculates these promises, using the best peer-reviewed economic models – through slower GDP growth from higher energy costs — would reach $1-trillion to $2-trillion every year from 2030.
On the basis of SA’s GDP in relationship to global GDP, and SA’s contribution of 1.1% to global emissions, this means carbon-tax renewables and its other efforts would cost SA R35bn-R51bn per annum. SA’s efforts will furthermore reduce temperature increases by about 0.0026ºC by 2100. These figures offer substantial support to the figures above.
The GHG emission figures and their impact on temperature are so insignificant that for all practical purposes, SA’s contribution is negligible and not even quantifiable over 85 years.
Meanwhile, China, India and the Asean countries will be increasing their emissions from increased fossil fuel and coal usage considerably.
If anthropogenic CO² is the major driver of modern global warming, an assumption many renowned scientists question, its contribution will negate savings that SA makes many times over.
The potential negative economic, social and political consequences for SA of making the planned sacrifices in electricity generation from coal are enormous. It is an expensive feel-good factor for the wealthy and those with vested financial and idealistic interests. The naivety of the South African policy is clearly illustrated by the figures.
The generation of clean-coal and nuclear-power electricity are the cheapest and most economic energy sources for generating secure, sustainable, stable and dispatchable electricity for many countries that are still emerging and industrialising.
• Jeffrey is a senior economist and managing consultant at Econometrix