Is it still ethical to conduct coal research in South Africa?

An Eskom coal fired power station as the sun rises near Johannesburg, South Africa.

An Eskom coal fired power station as the sun rises near Johannesburg, South Africa.

Published Nov 3, 2023


Author: Bertie Jacobs

As the debate on the effect of fossil fuels on climate change rages on, questions regarding the use of fossils fuels as a major part of the country’s energy-producing package are hotly disputed.

Now, Prof Marco le Roux of the Faculty of Engineering at the North-West University (NWU) asks:

Is it still ethical to conduct coal research in South Africa?

Le Roux, who serves as the NWU’s director for the Centre for Engineering Education, explains that – according to the International Energy Agency – just more than 80% of the world’s energy is supplied by fossil fuels, with coal contributing 26,8%. This number increases to just below 40% for electricity generation in particular.

He further states that this contribution by coal has remained constant since 1971, when coal was responsible for 26,1% of the global energy mix. However, considering that the total energy demand worldwide has increased by 260% since then, the nominal contribution of coal has skyrocketed. So too have the emissions relating to this energy source.

“It is undeniable that fossil fuels have made a negative contribution towards the sustainability of the global environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and hence global warming,” says Le Roux.

Let us take a look at the picture painted by South Africa’s energy woes.

“The current energy landscape in South Africa is in a dire state, resulting in the president’s call for a state of disaster on 9 February 2023, while appointing a Minister of Electricity to help salvage a crippled electricity supplier. However, because of legal challenges, the state of disaster was revoked in April on the back of corruption fears. This has left the country in turmoil, with electricity blackouts, or load-shedding, every day in 2023 until recently. Currently, just over 70% of South Africa’s total energy consumption is supplied by coal. There is a slight emergence of renewable energy sources, but fossil fuels are still dominant, led by coal, which has hovered at between 70% and 80% of our total energy supply since 1965,” he continues.

“The rate of transition towards renewable energy sources remains low, hence the dominance of fossil fuels in this sector. Keeping in mind that South Africa has a scarcity of crude oil deposits and imports almost 90% of all its crude oil from mainly Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, the dependence on coal becomes worrying. This situation is worse when we focus on electricity generation, as it was reported that 80,1% of South Africa’s 2022 electricity supply had been generated by coal-fired power stations.”

Although renewable energy resources must increasingly form part of the answer to South Africa’s energy problems, coal remains a big part of the equation.

According to Le Roux, China currently dominates coal research output, having overtaken the USA in around 2004. For countries such as the USA, coal research has declined, but BRICS countries such as China, India and Russia have shown a definite increase in research outputs.

“South Africa, although it is a bit more erratic, does follow the BRICS trend, showing an increase in coal-related research outputs for the past two decades.”

Predictions show that South Africa will still be dependent on coal for base-load electricity beyond 2050. For this reason, it remains the responsibility of experts to continue with research to optimise coal usage, minimise emissions and rehabilitate used sites.

“The world, and especially developing countries like South Africa, is not going to be without fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. Even though the Just Energy Transition is a reality and an admirable goal, having a stable energy base load is critical for any country. It is within this framework that the development and optimisation of the use of fossil fuels must take priority. It will inevitably lead to carbon neutrality by eliminating carbon emissions and optimal use of this finite resource.

“For South Africa, the fossil fuel in use will be coal because of the large deposits available. Working towards process optimisation across the coal value chain, the reduction and elimination of water in coal processing plants, emissions control coupled with carbon capture and storage, sustainable rehabilitation of land and the redeployment of the current work force will undoubtedly contribute to a secure future for the generations to come. Within this context, without harming social progress, coal research remains integral and a valuable contributor to help reach the goals of the United Nations Climate Change Conference that were adopted by 196 parties and came into effect in 2016.”

*The North-West University, through its various endeavours, is committed to helping achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for the betterment of society as a whole.

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