COVID-19 aside, it's coal-fired power that threatens us most

If the developed world is not careful, poorer countries will render useless all our efforts to save the planet

All eyes are on the corona crisis, and whether Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s America can join forces in a multilateral strategy to find scientific solutions to it and cooperative economic policies to combat a global depression. But climate change remains the greater long-term threat to humankind.

So it’s timely to remind ourselves that we mustn’t allow Covid-19 to eclipse the environmental challenge. If we in the developed world aren’t very careful, poorer countries are going to render useless all our efforts to save the planet.

It may be hard to remember, but this year’s halcyon pre-corona winter months most notable developments included the way public opinion was responding to global warming. In Europe and in most of the wealthier nations, people had changed from being passive polluters to become environmental activists.

This newfound green enthusiasm will be fruitless unless attention, plus a great deal of cash, is switched to the developing world, and particularly to Africa. EU policymakers are aware of this, but have been unable to focus public attention beyond the need to radically shrink Europe’s carbon footprint to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

Europe is raising its game, but its increased ambitions will be useless unless it exerts pressure elsewhere for more responsible behaviour – notably on China. Chinese companies have financed and built a growing number of coal-fired power stations in Africa and around the world, and are planning hundreds more. The carbon dioxide emissions will more than negate all existing green measures.

Burning coal to generate electricity is already making a nonsense of present efforts to clean up the planet.  It releases 15 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, double the volume at the turn of the century. Coal is the single largest component of the total 36 billion tonnes emitted.

China’s own domestic clean-up efforts have been admirable, yet the People’s Republic is the villain of the piece when it comes to ‘dirty’ coal. In an effort to banish its famous smog, Beijing has converted the city’s four power stations to natural gas, but 70 per cent of electricity in China still comes from burning coal.

Worse is the Chinese export strategy of building coal-fired plants abroad. China is in the vanguard of a construction drive that could see 300 more of these going into service worldwide. A hundred are earmarked for African countries, with twice that number destined for Turkey, Vietnam, Egypt, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

Two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s fast-growing population has little or no access to electricity. The Chinese are right to say their easy-credit energy strategy is a boon to Africans’ economic future, but it is also pushing the world closer to climate disaster. There are no easy answers to meeting the electricity needs of under-developed countries. Highly desirable solar energy demands massive subsidies that indebted governments cannot afford. It is also impractical in cloudier regions like central Africa.

Rich nations like the US, Japan and the EU’s member states need to act fast to prevent their poorer brethren from accelerating climate change. Instead of fussing at the margins, they must envisage a global energy strategy. Nuclear and natural gas power stations, along with ambitious hydroelectric schemes and solar farms in all shapes and sizes, look unimaginably expensive. Adopting such a strategy would, though, do much to kick-start the West’s corona-ravaged economies.

Giles Merritt is Founder and Chairman of Friends of Europe. The commentary was originally published by Friends of Europe.

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