Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

While the pressure to reduce greenhouse emissions in the mining value chain is good, this scrutiny is often religiously used to denigrate coal. Coal is still a force for good, and it therefore requires all hands on deck to reverse its historical effects on climate. 

Polemic tensions between coal, environment and society must be overridden by national interest. Pragmatism ought to triumph over dogmatism in finding solutions to the myriad challenges the country faces. While climate change concerns are real, the temptation to dogmatically condemn coal to eternal damnation must be avoided.

The dogmatism often seen in debates has a “religious” flavour to it. Some demand that to be pro-environment one must be anticoal, and vice versa. This is problematic to either cause. The two views should be complementary.

The contribution of coal to the energy mix will still be a force for good for a long time. Coal has driven industrialisation here and elsewhere. SA is endowed with about 53-billion tons of coal reserves. At the current rate of production, there is more than 200 years of coal supply left.

Discussions about clean coal technologies must be given space. Clean coal technologies will result in virtually zero carbon emissions. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing carbon emissions, especially for nations behind the development curve. Doing otherwise could stymie economic growth and industrialisation for good.

Mining coal recklessly to contribute to energy security without any care for the environment and communities is no longer enough

Often given as an example to emulate, Germany adopted a coal phase-out law only because it was aware of its local circumstances — that it has adequately industrialised and can depend on France for nuclear to support its energy security.

SA does not have a France next door to rely on. Our circumstances are very different. The industrialisation trajectory of SA and the region will still require coal, a resource we have in abundance.

Coal is the lifeblood of our economy and will be among the mix of energy sources SA relies on while clean coal technologies are pursued to achieve emissions targets. Our focus should be on clean coal technologies. Efforts to clean up the “dirty industry” reputation and invest in re-imagining future zero-emissions possibilities must now be accelerated.

Coal miners should never be forced to choose between doing good and doing well. Yes, they should care about sustainability, global warming and social issues in the same way as they care about maximising returns to shareholders. This should include bold efforts to include host communities in their procurement, timely delivery of social and labour plans and meaningful engagement with local communities. Benefits must accrue to local communities. Mining coal recklessly to contribute to energy security without any care for the environment and communities is no longer enough.

SA’s base-load energy will come from coal for the foreseeable future, despite growth and acceleration of complementary renewables, in line with our industrialisation trajectory. Investment into clean coal technologies should therefore be rigorously pursued and promoted. Coal miners have a tremendous responsibility to change the narrative about coal. We urgently need to get the right conversations going.

Other uses

Often overlooked in the coal debate is the non-energy usage of coal such as coking coal, which is a major component in steel and cement manufacturing, where alternative replacements for coal do not yet exist.

There is also absolute silence on the many other uses for coal in chemical industries, paper manufacturing, pharmaceutical industries, liquid fuels, silicon metal (used to make lubricants, resins, water repellents, cosmetics, hair shampoos and toothpaste), kidney dialysis machines, and coal by-products such as agricultural fertilisers, soaps, aspirins, dyes and fibres.

Mining comprises 7.5% of the economy and contributes 30% of SA’s foreign exchange earnings. This is too significant to overlook. While the country allows the renewables sector to grow organically, the focus should be on implementing carbon capture and storage technology from coal-fired power plants for non-energy usage.

We must all put our thinking hats on to quickly find technologies to make this resource a force for good for longer — and not a source of imaginary tensions. National interest must always direct our debates on this important matter. We dare not quixotically tilt at windmills while what we have been endowed with to tackle inequality, unemployment and poverty of our people is inadvertently sterilised.

Such a scenario is not in our country’s best interest. We dare not fail our people and future generations whose hopes rest on the choices we make now.

• Helepi is special adviser to the mineral resources and energy minister.