Climate Change Summit, Durban, South Africa

by Andrea Palframan, Watershed Sentinel

At a Greenpeace hosted panel called "The dirty truth about coal" delegates to COP 17 learned the true cost of the world's reliance on coal.

South Africa's industries rely on access to cheap coal. This is enabled by coal subsidies; in 2009, industry was funded to the tune of 312 billion dollars. Apartheid-era Special Pricing Agreements remain in place, giving BHP Biliton and Anglo American Corporation the world's cheapest electricity ($0.02 per kiloWatt hour), about 1/8 what ordinary households pay.

There are a number of hidden externalities that are not reflected in the traded price of coal, giving the lie to the claim that coal is cheap. Those costs include impacts on health, climate change, water use, and coal mining itself.

In spite of fierce opposition from civil society, South Africa is building the world's third and fourth largest coal-fired power plants, Kusile and Medupi, with a $3.75 billion loan from the World Bank.

Meanwhile, millions of poor South Africans are disconnected from electricity, unable to absorb the 130 percent price hike the utility Eskom has imposed since 2008 in order to service loans on coal-fired generators.

Fossil fuel subsidies are twice as high as the current global market for renewables, which are then labelled 'too expensive' to roll out. Greenpeace calls for the scrapping of subsidies so that wind, solar, and other green energy sources can gain viability.

As the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, China is still far ahead of South Africa in terms of its consumption and coal industry expansion. Dr. Fiqiang Yang of the Natural Resources Defence Council, said "coal is the number one issue to tackle in China." He called for a coal cap in China and echoed the calls of other panelists for a fair playing field for renewables.

The focus of this panel has echoes throughout the conference: this morning in Durban, Sierra Club and other members of the global TckTckTck campaign dressed in black paraded a casket labeled "COAL" in bold lettering, declaring King Coal dead. The mock funeral honours the success of the Sierra Club and local activists across the United States in defeating over 150 proposed new coal power stations over the past 5 years.

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, offers a sobering summary, with a glimmer of optimism. Looking out over the crowd, he said, "One of the advantages of being up here is that I can see you. You all look extremely apprehensive, extremely white, extremely upset. And you have reason to be."

"Let's be very very clear: these negotiations have been captured and taken over by the interest of big polluting corporations because of the disproportionate influence they have in influencing the holding back of progressive legislation.

I think if we are brutally honest too many of our governments allow themselves to be dictated to by big polluting corporations and are allowing themselves to negate the interests of large numbers of people."

"Across the world right now, we are seeing resistance by communities to actually stand up to the coal plants that are in people's neighbourhoods, causing them to be shut down and phased out. We have to take comfort that communities who are being affected are taking action."