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Climate Change: Can Zimbabwe Do Without Coal?

Thermal coal is the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, a relic of the 19th century that has no place in the modern world. 

Burning thermal coal is one of the most significant drivers of rising carbon pollution that leads to climate change. The International Energy Agency found that this fuel was “the single largest source of global temperature increase” in 2018. 

The IEA expects demand to remain at that level at least through 2025. 

The same report found that coal-fired electricity accounts for 30 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. 

According to the United Nations Environment Program, global coal development must decline 11 percent a year between 2020 and 2030 in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

There’s a debate that phasing out coal-fired power plants is necessary to avoid the worst climate change scenarios. Yet rather than fade away, coal, the biggest source of carbon emissions, is experiencing a renaissance.  

Worries about global warming have been overtaken by more prosaic ones about keeping the lights on as coal is by far the biggest source of electricity in the world, generating more than 36% of it.  

Recognizing different countries’ situations, the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), a coalition of governments and businesses, has proposed that developed countries phase out coal power generation by 2030 and developing countries by 2050 

According to the new research, developing countries would still need to reduce their coal power generation by one-third by 2030, including by closing the most polluting plants—a faster decline than those governments are currently planning.  

The research finds that this differentiated pace would put several countries at the limit of historical transitions, suggesting that it is difficult but feasible. 

In Zimbabwe, however, coal contributes significantly to the national power grid and environmentalists predict that it will be difficult to do away with thermal power. 

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Byron Zamasiya, who is a Program Lead on Climate Change and Energy Governance with the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association (ZELA) told this publication that in the short time it’s not practical to do away with thermal energy:  

“Because of issues of base load. Renewable energy can sustain that. We also do not have a power pool for the supply of base load.”  

Zamasiya added: “What’s critical is to ensure that whatever we emit is sunk through some carbon sinks. Europe has backslidden on this due to the war in Ukraine. By 2050 all our emissions should at least be equal to or below our sinking carbon. 

Researchers found that in order to achieve a 1.5°C target with this PPCA pace of coal phase-out, developed countries must reduce carbon emissions roughly 50% faster than when these speed limits are neglected. 

To this end, Lenin Chisaira, Director of Advocates4Earth, is of the view that it will be difficult for Zimbabwe to do away with coal mining as it constitutes 50 per cent of energy generation. He, however, believes “any country with the political and economic will can do away with coal and move to clean energy.”  

There is the belief that if the world fails to drastically reduce the amount of thermal coal used for energy production, there is a climate disaster looming. 

Burning coal will impact the lives of more people as increasing global temperatures puts everyone at risk of wildfires, droughts, and flooding.  

According to Thobekile Shoko, the regional officer for the National Mine Workers Union of Zimbabwe the country will not be able won’t be able to do away with coal and this will continue to negatively affect people in coal mining communities.  

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Shoko said air pollution from thermal coal plants has been linked to chronic heart and respiratory disease as well as a range of other health problems.  

“Over the years, coal mining has caused a lot of negative impacts on the physical, biological and social aspects of the environment. Looking at the situation of Hwange, it is evident that mining creates a few hundred jobs while destroying the livelihoods of thousands of families,” she said. 

Additionally, coal dust is known to contain high levels of mercury, which can cause serious birth defects in unborn babies.     

Shoko added that in the event of a coal ban, people in mining communities will find it difficult to survive as their lives depend on the mines and that their environments are heavily burdened such no crops will grow in those areas.  

“So, a ban will be difficult for the people,” she added. 

It is crucial to phase out coal use as quickly as possible, both to limit warming to 1.5°C and to avoid the health damage caused by air pollution.  

The problem is that many models propose phasing coal out faster than is likely to be possible in some countries.  

The danger is then that if all governments follow the models’ guidance in all other respects, we will still exceed 1.5°C if the coal part cannot be achieved.   

Findings suggest that climate models and policy debates rely too much on winding down coal at a pace that may not be feasible for coal-dependent developing countries.  

Instead, there is a need fairer and more realistic balance, and this means more emphasis on the oil and gas phase-out and greater efforts by the Global North. 

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Multi-award winning journalist/photojournalist with keen interests in politics, youth, child rights, women and development issues. Follow Lovejoy On Twitter @L_JayMut

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