/ 24 September 2021

Environmental groups welcome China’s pledge on coal

The fate of South Africa’s controversial Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) in Limpopo is uncertain, according to activists who are celebrating China’s announcement that it will stop all international coal financing. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The fate of South Africa’s controversial Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) in Limpopo is uncertain, according to activists who are celebrating China’s announcement that it will stop all international coal financing. 

Veteran environmental rights activist Bobby Peek told the Mail & Guardian that the controversial MMSEZ, in his opinion, was “gone and finished”. 

Peek said that the news was significant and attributed the development to the hard work African grassroots environmental watchdogs have put into calling for the end of coal on the continent. 

“People have been killed for this, people have died for this,” Peek said. 

Others are a little more cautious about the announcement, as there is no immediate indication if all planned new coal projects are immediately off the table; or whether this applies to only state bank-funded projects. 

President Xi Jinping made the announcement at the 76th session of the UN general assembly in New York on 21 September, ending the reign of the world’s last major coal financier. 

“We need to accelerate the transition to a green and low-carbon economy and achieve green development. China will strive to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060,” he said, adding that “China will step up support for developing countries in developing green and low carbon energy, and will not build coal-fired fired power stations abroad”. 

The news came as activists from 120 community organisations across 20 African countries were wrapping up day two of a three-day conference on efforts to end new coal expansion on the continent. 

The Africa Coal Network spent the last day of the conference in high spirits following three years of activism against new coal developments. 

Planned new coal projects in Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, which pinned their new coal plans on finance from China, the last major global coal financier, are set to be affected by this announcement. 

Back in Limpopo, the long-awaited MMSEZ environmental impact assessment for the zone was released on 1 September, which activists said coincided with a carefully orchestrated investor roadshow. 

The release effectively gave the project the green light to go ahead. 

China’s Shenzhen Hoi Mor, now operating as the South African Energy Metallurgical Base pledged R400-billion, according to several groups who oppose the project. 

In September 2018, the South African government and the Bank of China entered into a trade agreement in which the Chinese will make investments of R15-billion in special economic zones and industrial parks in South Africa. 

The deal was expected to include the construction of the coal-fired power plant over six years, according to the African Centre for Citizenship and Democracy

Activists are now calling for China to expand its decision to its domestic coal projects and to extend it to importers and proxies. 

The coordinator for Africa Coal Network, Lorraine Chiponda, said, “We challenge President Xi to end support from all Chinese institutions — private, state, parastatal, finance, insurance, importers, or proxies — that keep Africa’s coal mines, plants and other infrastructure under construction or [that are] planned.” 

“The import of Chinese coal from Mozambique and South Africa has been increasing, as one example.” 

On the MMSEZ, she had this to say: “The plans for the MMSEZ, initiated by Ning Yat Hoi, who has been on the Interpol list for his corrupt dealings in Zimbabwe, are being pushed ahead at a breakneck speed and include a 1 320MW coal-fired power plant.”

Independent think tank E3G said that the global pipeline of proposed coal power plants has collapsed by 76% since the Paris Agreement in 2015, bringing the end of new coal power construction into sight.

“The world has avoided a 56% expansion of the total global coal fleet (as of June 2021), which would have been equivalent to adding a second China (1 047GW) to global coal capacity,” researchers said in a new report. 

“China alone is home to almost 53% of the capacity under construction and 55% of the pre-construction pipeline,” the report highlighted. 

Peek said he hopes China will make the same bold move domestically because those emissions will continue to cause harm globally and at home. 

An end to Chinese finance would facilitate the cancellation of more than 40GW of pipeline projects in 20 countries, including South Africa. 

South Africa’s energy master plan, IRP2019, plans for the construction of 1 500MW of new coal-fired power. But with Japan, South Korea and now China announcing the end to coal finance abroad, activists believe these planned new builds will not see the light of day.

Two planned new builds have already been blocked through successful litigation by environmental rights groups. 

Environmental rights groups have written an open letter to Mineral and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe demanding that the IRP2019 be revised this year in light of the new thresholds for independent power generation that is anticipated to add 5 000MW of new independent and clean energy in the country.

Tunisia Phillips is an Adamela Trust climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa