The uncoal: Decarbonizing as wise investment

New “just” approaches to climate change are lifting richer and poorer nations beyond disagreements over who should pay for the Impact of erratic weather.

Vehicles drive past the Duvha coal-based power station in Mpumalanga province, South Africa.

The task of curbing climate change has taken significant shifts over the decades, from denial of the science to acceptance of the human causes; to pledges by countries to reduce carbon emissions; to an embrace of innovative, efficient solutions. The latest United Nations climate summit, held in Egypt, may mark another turning point – one from blame and victimization to cooperation and a shared responsibility. 

The global gathering opened last week under a pall of injustice. Poorer countries again sought money from wealthier countries to compensate for the disproportionate loss and damages from global warming. The issue remained unresolved. Yet a new model, known as “just energy transition plans,” has now taken hold. 

Last week, South Africa signed an $8.5 billion agreement with the European Union and individual Western governments to start weaning the country off the use of coal. That was followed yesterday by a similar agreement between coal-dependent Indonesia and the G-20 club of wealthy nations. India, Vietnam, and Senegal have all expressed interest in the approach.

Instead of basing climate justice on reparations and compensation, just energy transitions define the shift to renewable sources by an insistence on honest government, community prosperity, and recognition of individual worth. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholz noted, “Climate change and economic prospects must go hand in hand.” 

The South African deal, proposed in 2021 at the last U.N. climate conference, creates the template. 

The country depends on coal for almost 80% of its electricity needs. To break that dependency, the government says, it will need $98 billion during the first five years of a 20-year transition plan. That makes the funds pledged so far little more than a kick-starter. 

But it is what’s behind the money that counts more. The deal signed last week was a year in the making. Britain funded advance work in two coal-dependent regions to develop community-based economic transition plans so miners and other coal-industry workers and their families have future prospects. Germany provided technical expertise to measure how renewable energy can be patched into the existing grid. France funded development of a climate finance mapping and tracking tool to monitor corruption – a persistent problem in South Africa.

The pledged funding will be in the form of investments, grants, and loans issued at below-market rates. The Indonesia deal, worth an initial $20 billion, signals the start of similar on-the-ground collaboration. It, too, will focus not just on transforming a power grid, but building post-coal communities. 

That sense of caring can build vital public support for the huge transformations required to address climate change. A just approach, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said, ensures “that those most directly affected by a transition from coal – workers and communities, including women and girls – are not left behind.” Amid the vast sum of money needed to mitigate climate change or adapt to its effects, humanity is learning to tap its most abundant resource – the values that bind communities and nations.

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