Senator John Kerry described US President
Obama, China's Premier Wen, India's Prime Minister Singh, and South Africa's President Zuma as "the
four horsemen of climate change." It is, Kerry said, "a powerful
signal to see [them] agree on a meeting of the minds."
As the World Bank prepares to vote April 8 on a $3.75 billion loan to South Africa's parastatal Electricity Supply Commission (Eskom), Kerry's language evokes a powerful vision: the apocalypse of business-as-usual disguised as "clean coal."
Rocks of ages
The World Bank is positioned better than most to know the true, externalized costs of coal-fired energy. Indeed, in 2007 the Bank acquiesced to China's request to excise mortality information from its report, "Cost of Pollution in China": about 350,000 to 400,000 people die prematurely each year from high air-pollution levels; 300,000 die from exposure to poor air indoors; another 60,000 deaths are attributed to poor water quality.
As a geologist and engineer by profession, climate change horseman Premier Wen knows that coal fires have burned for centuries along China's 5,000-kilometer mining belt. They contribute up to three percent of annual global carbon emissions -- about 360 million metric tons -- as much as all the cars and trucks in the US.
China's government intends to
extinguish fires to meet its own target of 20-percent reduction of
carbon emissions over three years. But it takes months, even years,
to put out one fire. Then, small private mining companies working
under cover of darkness often fail to replace the soil after extracting
coal; spontaneous combustion occurs at 80 degrees Celsius. Yet China
seems intent to cut greenhouse gas emissions by putting out fires
rather than implementing effective energy saving measures.
Climate change horseman President Zuma's South African government inherited the decades-old coalfield fires at Witbank (renamed Emalahleni).
Two years ago, unemployed mother Thandi Mthlango and her young son scavenged for coal to heat their home on land pocked with subsidence from underground fires and acid mine drainage. The boy was in a trench when it collapsed and crushed him to death.
There is no one to blame; even assigning responsibility is tough as former owners of Emalahleni's seven abandoned mines are long gone; apparently they cannot be traced.
A German consultancy estimated that it would cost at least R1 billion to rehabilitate the area, way beyond the funding capacity of the city council as it mulls relocating squatters crowded on the toxic land. But where? Town planner Eric Parker says the region is "sterilized." In the video report UnderMined, he laughs ruefully and says he sees one bright spot -- local cattle are acclimated. "But, if you bring in a new cow from somewhere else, it dies. We have a super breed of resistant cows!"
Climate change horseman Prime Minister Singh's Ministry of Coal controls Coal India Limited (CIL), the world's largest coal mine. But, in November or December 2010, financial investors anywhere could own a piece when CIL presents an initial public offering (IPO). It intends to invest the proceeds of US $1 billion to $1.5 billion in joint ventures in Australia, Indonesia, US, and South Africa. Chairman Bhattacharya told Economic Times, "Our focus is to invest our funds in acquiring assets that deliver energy to our country...in a viable manner." This includes relocating 400,000 people from mining town Jharia who suffer breathing disorders, skin disease, and compromised health from the fumes emitted by fires.
Singh's government has been criticized for its attitude. But India's coal is worth US $12 billion, and relocating the poor is cheaper than implementing environmental controls.
The unaffordable luxury of clean earth
South Africa's finance minister Pravin Gordhan knows the externalized costs of coal fired energy and believes they are unavoidable. He wrote recently in a Washington Post op ed:
"If there were any other way to meet our power needs as quickly or as affordably as our present circumstances demand, or on the required scale, we would obviously prefer technologies -- wind, solar, hydropower, nuclear -- that leave little or no carbon footprint. But we do not have that luxury if we are to meet our obligations."
South Africa has one of the planet's most energy-intensive economies and Eskom plans a five-year, $50 billion dollar expansion to increase capacity. Its Kendal plant is already the largest coal-fired power station in the world. If approved, over $3 billion of the Bank loan will go toward constructing 4800 MW Medupi, the first so-called super-critical clean coal plant in Africa and the fourth largest coal-fired power plant in the world that, as advertised, will use "some of the most efficient, lowest-emission coal-fired technology available."