Yes, but wait: Botswana’s approach to coal, COP26

Under pressure: Morupule Coal Mine is one of two collieries in the country PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Under pressure: Morupule Coal Mine is one of two collieries in the country PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

As more than 40 countries agreed to phase out coal at the Glasgow climate summit last week, Botswana signed on but with conditions. Authorities say a balance will be struck between tapping the billions of tonnes lying unused in the country, energy security for Batswana, powering economic development and adhering to climate commitments. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports

Last week, the Botswana delegation at the global UN climate summit in Glasgow signed a commitment, along with more than 40 other countries, pledging to ease the country’s use of coal. Critically, however, the local delegation declined to sign a key clause in the deal, which would have required Botswana to commit itself to not issuing any new coal licences.

Botswana was not unique in this conditional approval. Several countries placed their own Ts and Cs on the deal, while others, including major players such as the United Kingdom, which was hosting the summit, declined to fix a date to phase out fossil fuels.

Global scientists and politicians agree that coal is one of the major contributors to adverse climate change, through the emission of high amounts of carbon dioxide when being burnt for electricity. Scientists have long warned that the world is reaching the point of no return in climate change, the point where the crisis at a global level will escalate and throw millions into hunger, poverty and economic distress, regardless of what major interventions are taken.

An average increase of just two percent in the global temperature would cause apocalyptic events such as perennial cycles of heavy droughts and floods, fires, habitat loss for animals, food insecurity and all manner of associated pandemonium on humans.

The world, however, is not warming up evenly and some areas are already experiencing climate change effects worse than others.

These areas include Southern Africa, whose landmass sits between two oceans, and experts expect countries like Botswana to suffer repeated droughts and heatwaves, broken only by floods and other adverse weather events. Climate lobby groups have made ending coal developments a rallying call at all the previous global climate summits and gradually, they have been winning the support of governments and major financiers. Countries and major financiers have been cutting off funding for new coal projects and at Glasgow, many took their final stand, leading the UN to declare in a statement last week: “End of Coal In Sight”. For countries like Botswana, the global changes mean making very difficult decisions and striking a tricky balance. Botswana is not only dependent almost entirely on coal for its electricity generation, but the country has untapped resources estimated at more than 200 billion.

Ten years ago, Botswana unveiled its Coal Roadmap indicating that the billions of tonnes would be monetised through coal exports, coal-fired power stations and eventually beneficiation such as transforming coal to liquid fuels.

To date, the lack of a viable export rail route has minimised coal exports, while Morupule B has been the only coal-fired power station developed. Even here, the power station is supplied by its existing and long-standing partner, Morupule Coal. However, at least five coal developers are active and at advanced stages on the country’s coalfield, with government extending financial support to one of them, Minergy Ltd, helping the company to begin commercial exports last year.

Government-aligned entities such as the Botswana Development Corporation, the Minerals Development Company Botswana and the Botswana Public Officers Pension Fund have pumped funds into the coal sector, but the developers on the coalfields know that at some point they will have to raise funds in an international market hostile to new coal projects.

Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security deputy permanent secretary, Nchena Mothebe explains that Botswana is not opposed to the climate commitments or the transition away from coal and other fossil fuels. Speaking from Glasgow, Mothebe explains that government’s priority is the security of supply and access to energy by all citizens. He points to the inaugural Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) launched last November and detailing the sources of new generation government intends to build or procure for the next 20 years.

“As per our IRP, 82% of our electricity projects to be implemented over the next 20 years are focussing on green technologies and such projects will be done as independent power producers,” he explains. “The transition to green technologies is our priority considering the effects of greenhouse gases but the reality is that this will be done over time.

“As you may have seen, there is only one coal project (300MW) in the IRP, which is tied to government procurement and will however be implemented by investors as an independent power producer.”

The IRP indicates that projects such as solar, Coal Bed Methane (CBM), wind and battery storage will dominate the new generation in the next 20 years. Already, government has committed to procure 100MW in CBM within the next few years and last month signed a 10MW supply deal with Tlou Energy, the first of its kind in the country’s history.

Mothebe explains that the move away from coal will be gradual, but targets have been set in line with the commitments made at a global level.

“The need to transit to green technology will be gradual as we have to prioritise in meeting our baseload demand.

“Currently, we stand at two percent energy contribution from renewable/green technologies (mainly photovoltaic) without storage and the plan is to achieve 15% contribution by 2030. “Our access to electricity stands at 67% and the drive is to have 100% access by 2030 through various programmes such as mini-grids and off-grid solar.”

Extending electricity coverage to 100% will also wean rural households off using firewood for cooking, which the country’s climate change policy released in April, indicates is one of the major contributors to the country’s carbon emissions. The fact that this total coverage will be achieved largely through renewable energy presents another win-win for authorities, the ability to kill two birds with one stone.

Outside of government, however, is where issues lie for coal development in Botswana. Private developers already active in the coalfields or those who hold prospecting licences and intended to start activities have been thrown for a loop by the closure of global funding for coal.

Try as it might, government cannot provide all the funding required to exploit the country’s untapped coal within the windows provided by the global climate commitments. Botswana, as a developing country, has committed that it will exploit its coal until 2050 and thereafter decommission.

Government, by not agreeing to stop new coal licences in Glasgow, has left the door open for the developers either already active or those holding prospecting licences.

“Monetisation of our abundant coal resources (200 billion tonnes) is still a government priority as long as it is done taking into consideration of the environmental impact, using cleaner technologies etc,” Mothebe explains.

“As per the Electricity Supply Act amended in 2007, private investors are allowed to invest in projects of their choice including coal, if they have customers outside the country provided they meet the regulatory requirements.”

He says the government’s plan for the exploitation of the billions of tonnes remains coal to electricity, coal to liquid and coal exports.

“For instance, through Botswana Oil, the government is conducting a feasibility study on coal to liquid as this could address energy security in terms of petroleum products.”

Even with government holding the door open for private coal development, the dynamics around the global backlash against coal and the events in Glasgow have left a sour taste in the mouths of many.

One key criticism is that while developed nations are dominantly the culprits whose relentless pursuit for wealth over the decades have led to the climate crisis, developing, energy vulnerable nations such as Botswana are being asked to quickly dump coal and contribute to the fight.

Most studies agree that Africa as a whole contributes less than four percent of global carbon emissions and while local data is scratchy, the last estimate was that Botswana contributed just five percent of the African total.

In addition, as noted by the Climate Change policy released earlier this year, mining is just one of several major contributors to emissions, with the others being transport, agriculture and residential use. However, like other regional neighbours, Botswana will be amongst the countries hardest hit by climate change even if it is a minimal contributor to the problem.

The Botswana Chamber of Mines wants to see a careful transition from fossil fuels, a balance being struck between economic imperatives and the contribution at a global level to a cleaner world. “We have coal resources and we have to utilise them responsibly,” the Chamber’s CEO, Charles Siwawa says.

“There are various ways of utilising this coal and there are technologies that we can use that can reduce the effects into the atmosphere.”

Further complicating the debate is the fact that while the developed world says it will make funding available to help countries such as Botswana transition to clean energy, little of this funding has been forthcoming over the years. In 2009, rich countries promised to make $100 billion available every year in climate funding until 2020, but they have consistently missed this target, amidst criticism that even the funding that was said to have been made available was over-exaggerated or included loans charged at market value, rather than concessional.

In Glasgow, South Africa, another coal-dependent country, secured an $8.5 billion pledge over the next five years to help its decarbonisation efforts. Its sceptical minerals and energy minister, Gwede Mantashe has since come out guns blazing against developed nations, criticising global agreements to move away from fossil fuels as ‘hollow’ and calling on African nations to “urgently form a united front to resist global pressure to rapidly abandon fossil fuels”. “This is a sign of unsettlement by the rich countries, where we are converted into conduits of ideas of developed economies,” Mantashe said, in widely reported remarks.

“Our continent collectively, and her countries are made to bear the brunt for heavy polluters.

“We are being pressured, even compelled, to move away from all forms of fossil fuels, including resources such as gas, which have been regarded as a key resource for industrialisation ... I think Africa must get together to develop a strategy to deal with this reality.” He added: “We’ve noticed with interest that when Britain, when China, when India, when Australia, ran into an energy crisis, they all appealed to coal generation to give them more energy.

“You will notice that, but when they talk to us they say stop using coal immediately.

“That is the issue that we must discuss without fear.” His sentiments resonate with many others in Africa who, however, have been more diplomatic. Some analysts have said the latest push against coal and other fossil fuels could become a form of structural adjustment programme where rich countries impose their economic might against poorer countries to force them into the policies they want to achieve.

The term ‘structural adjustment programme’ is dreaded in Africa, being associated with the 1990s policy-based lending approach by institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, which many countries still blame, even today, for their economic troubles.

Analysts fear that pushing African countries into a quick transition that is dependent on loans from richer nations would lead them into a debt trap and entrench the technology, skills and economic dependency that the continent has been fighting against. “While a transition is imminent in Africa, it should be at a suitable pace for the region,” reads a think piece authored this week by two directors at the Centre for Africa-China Studies.

“African governments have the responsibility to evade the ills/similar outcomes of the structural adjustment programmes in this epoch of green development partnerships.

“This would include building the necessary capacity at home for adaptation and effective use of resources provided through said partnerships while ensuring that ‘global powers’ do not impose their will (informed by their respective realities at home and their pursuit of national interests) thereby undermining the benefits of green growth and development for Africa.”

Mantashe’s scepticism is also fuelled by a reality even local authorities acknowledge. The change from coal and other fossil fuels to green technology will hurt employment. Jobs in green energy tend to be front-loaded meaning they occur in the construction phase of the projects and reduce considerably during operation.

Coal, meanwhile, is labour intensive from mine construction to operation and also supports a wide ecosystem that includes sectors such as transport, construction, retail and others.

Mothebe says government acknowledges this fact.

“The transition to green technologies will contribute to employment, especially during construction but will not be significant during operations and maintenance as these are not labour intensive,” he says.

The transition will create new skills in the country’s workforce, but here again, the Centre for Africa-China Studies says the closing down of coal plants would result in a surplus of workers in the job market with little to no skills in operating/managing green energy technologies.

Where does that leave the private sector?

Shumba Energy, a largely citizen-owned group holding 4.6 billion tonnes of coal in the country’s east, is now focussing on renewable energy through its 100MW Tati Project. “This is a really good time to fast track projects of this nature and for Botswana, it is particularly important because 99% of our generation is from fossil fuels,” he says.

“What’s important is that the key focus is on renewables and we believe that as much as coal will play its role, in the long term renewables is where we want to be.

“We have always wanted to provide a backbone for supplying sustainable power in the region and what has happened is that a lot of funding for sustainable projects is in renewable energy.

“This does not mean coal cannot be mined for other purposes but for electricity, the funding is in renewables.”

Tlou Energy, which scooped the 10MW Coal Bed Methane contract to supply government recently, is also advancing solar and hydrogen projects at its licence area in the Central District. The company says hydrogen can be produced at the site using solar and water, which could be a fully renewable energy source for transportation purposes.

Meanwhile, Maatla Resources, one of the five advanced coal projects in Botswana, says it is sticking to its plan to begin building its coal mine by next February. The mine will target coal exports to cement manufacturers and boiler operators in South Africa, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Namibia.

And yet for all this, the change is inevitable. Government has laid out its plans for transition and left the door open for new players, even though it may not be able to support them financially.

Whether these new players will be able to walk through that door and tap into the billions of tonnes of coal is anyone’s guess.

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