TRISTEN TAYLOR: Africa will pay the price for deceitful Europe and US coal habit
The continent’s future and the climate are being sacrificed on the altar of cheap carbon
Over the past five months Western countries have placed a raft of sanctions on Russia, designed to cut the country out of the global financial system and halt its exports.
Since the Russian economy depends on the export of fossil fuels, the intention was to force President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his troops from Ukraine. The immediate result? The Russians are still shelling everyone and everything they can.
The long-term result, in a twisted tale of Western hypocrisy, is that Africa’s future and the climate are being sacrificed on the altar of cheap carbon. Energy prices have skyrocketed because of the sanctions. Brent crude is hovering about the $100 a barrel mark, up from $70. Petrol in the US cost 72c a litre in the fourth quarter last year: it’s now about $5. Over the past 12 months the European benchmark for gas has climbed from about €38 to €155 per megawatt hour. Coal prices have gone from about $150 to $400 a tonne year on year.
These increases are driving inflation in the West. The US’s inflation rate is 9.1%, a far cry from 0.6% in June 2020. Growth is slowing across the EU and the inflation rate has climbed to 8.3%. In the UK, the rate is now 9.4%, the highest it has been in 40 years.
Before the war the Kremlin supplied the EU with 40% of the bloc’s gas, 27% of its oil and 46% of its coal. The EU now plans to cut its gas imports from Russia by two-thirds. The US, Germany and Poland have banned Russian oil imports, and in August the EU’s ban on the importation of Russian thermal coal kicks in. By year’s end, the EU will have reduced its imports of seaborne oil from Russia by 90%.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and EU countries are all democracies. The US is a democracy of sorts, a free society of equals. Except for pregnant women. Moreover, as sovereign nations they are under no moral obligation to trade with anyone. Sovereign countries shouldn’t be invaded either. The energy shock and inflation didn’t just happen. Western sanctions on the world’s second-largest oil and gas producing nation were the direct cause. And it was a free choice justified on the principle of sovereignty.
US President Joe Biden recently visited Saudi Arabia and begged the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to drill more oil. He was told to pound sand
Every economy on the planet depends on a common factor: the need for cheap and reliable energy. It has been this way since the start of the Industrial Revolution and continues to hold now. SA is the proof. The meltdown that is Eskom, and the consequent increasing electricity price, continue to obliterate whatever is left of SA’s industrial base. Until predictable and affordable power reappears, whenever that fabled day may be, its economy is doomed.
In response to self-inflicted high prices and declining supply, the West is scrambling to meet its energy needs. Germany is going big into liquefied natural gas, and on long-term contracts. If Russia cuts off the gas supply to Germany now, a worst-case scenario, the IMF estimates that the country’s GDP would drop 1.5% in 2022, 2.7% in 2023 and 0.4% in 2024. Inflation would rise by two percentage points.
The Netherlands has brought a mothballed coal-fired power station back into service. Austria, Greece, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic have extended the lifespans of their coal plants. Hungary said no thanks, we’re sticking with Russian oil. Last month, the EU parliament reduced its climate mitigation ambitions. Gas pipeline deals have been struck with Israel, Algeria and Azerbaijan.
US President Joe Biden recently visited Saudi Arabia and begged the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to drill more oil. He was told to pound sand. But the most ominous development is in Canada, where the expansion of oil production from tar sands is being seriously considered. Extracting oil from tar sands is one of the worst ideas for the climate. It is up there with burning down the Amazon. Canada’s annual emissions from tar sands are the equivalent to all of Kenya and New Zealand’s annual emissions combined.
Year after year Europe and the US have told the rest of the world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Do what we are doing; shut down coal and have a quick transition to renewables. We are getting out of carbon and you must too. We will finance your wind farms if you retire your coal. In November 2021, the US and the EU launched the Global Methane Pledge, calling for a 30% reduction in global methane emissions by 2030. What does that mean? Stop burning natural gas and putting petrol in SUVs.
The West’s historical emissions, from 1751 to 2017, have got us all into this mess. Together the US, EU nations and the UK account for 50% of all emissions to date. Australia and Canada’s joint contribution to the upcoming disaster is 3%, which is a bit more than the entire continent of Africa produced over those 266 years.
To put things into perspective, if we continue emitting greenhouse gases at current levels for the next 14 years, two degrees of global warming is inevitable — a catastrophe of human misery, the Sixth Extinction done and dusted.
Urgent action is required, and it will entail economic pain. Carbon-intensive industries will have to close and fossil fuels must be left in the ground. The world needs to start now. And the first to start should be those that caused and continue to cause the problem.
The Western powers chose to abandon Russian oil, gas and coal. And then? In the face of GDP contraction and rising prices, they are doubling down on fossils instead of walking away from them. Returning to coal, scouring the globe for alternative gas supplies, seeking to increase the global supply of petroleum. Hypocrites.
We won’t make the two-degree limit. Think three, set now in stone. Africa will bear the pain of climate change disproportionately, if for no other reason than we are poor and cannot afford adaptation measures. We are the poorest continent because the West enslaved us, colonised us and then destabilised us during the Cold War. Catastrophic global warming will keep us poor. We’ve just been sold out.
• Dr Taylor, a research fellow in environmental ethics at Stellenbosch University, is a freelance journalist and photographer.
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