Countries in Africa face a serious dilemma with the Paris Climate Treaty key target of curbing global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.
The headache is whether to limit greenhouse gas emissions or reduce poverty.
After all, according to experts, expansion of coal has generally provided a decisive stimulus for industrialisation and prosperity.
The notion that solar energy must now simply be installed everywhere in large parts of Africa and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere “ignores the historical significance and unique spillovers of coal-based technologies,” they say.
Now that’s the conclusion by a team of scientists, mainly from the Berlin climate research institute MCC (Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change), in an article published in the journal Nature Energy.
The scientists provide statistical evidence that the pattern of economic development has been constant over centuries: at some point, countries invest heavily in coal, which damages the environment and causes social tensions, but ultimately also leads to a massive increase in prosperity.
This empirical connection can still be seen today, for example in China, Indonesia or Vietnam.
“Coal was not only important as a cheap and abundant source of energy in the past”, notes Matthias Kalkuhl of the MCC, who co-authored the paper.
“The use of coal also triggered fundamental investments in transport infrastructure, such as canals or railway lines, which subsequently lowered transport costs and increased markets and productivity.”
In Zimbabwe, hydropower has exposed the benefits that coal-fired electric power plants could have at a time of drought, but not necessarily, perhaps, over solar.
The downstream economic impacts will also become apparent, as coal-producing companies keep jobs alive.
The intensity of the current energy crisis, which in part results from the water shortages at Kariba, demonstrate not only the threat climate change poses on future financial investments into hydropower, but also that hydro can no longer be relied upon to make Zimbabwe energy secure.
This is why authorities in Government have announced plans for a 2 000 megawatt solar power plant while working to add another 300 megawatts to the Hwange Thermal Power Station.
They are also keen on refurbishing the small thermal plants at Harare, Bulawayo and Munyati.
It is a combination capable of tackling the emissions problem, as per Zimbabwe’s pledges under the Paris Agreement on climate change, while simultaneously addressing the issues of electricity supply and poverty.
The arrangement should be acceptable under the Paris Treaty.
The 2015 deal provides a window for countries to develop without restrictions on expansion of emissions base up to 2025. Thereafter, development must be clean, sustainable and green.
This is, perhaps, one of the biggest dilemmas faced by developing countries like Zimbabwe at a time of climate change: the need to balance risk and responsibility, and to grow economic output in a way that limits environmental damage.
The country targets to cut carbon emissions by about a third by 2030, and improve living standards to within middle income levels by the same date.
Stable electricity supply, particularly from renewable sources, is key to achieving the later target.
The MCC researchers concluded that one gigawatt of renewable energy might not be the same as one gigawatt of coal.
“Successful global coal phase-out requires new concepts of industrialisation”, said Jan Steckel, also one of the authors.
“This is an important, but still marginally covered area of scientific research. However, we can already see in which direction it’s heading: targeted investments in infrastructure, economic incentives for low-emission technologies and appropriate pricing of the greenhouse gas CO2,” he opined.
Many observers hope that the Paris Agreement will reveal new information on country efforts on climate, and that increased transparency will stimulate climate ambition.
One important aspect of this expected transparency will focus on national efforts to cut emissions – and much of those cuts will have to take place in the energy sector.
God is faithful.