South Africa’s Dependence on Coal Greets World Cup Team

The 2010 FIFA World Cup begins on Thursday when host South Africa takes on Mexico to kickoff the quadrennial sporting event. More popular than the Olympics, national teams have already arrived after long flights to South Africa to train and acclimate themselves for the month long tournament that ends of July 11.

But when New Zealand’s players took the field at their training facility in Daveyton Township, 20 kilometers outside of Johannesburg, they found themselves surrounded by thick smog.  Fueled by local coal and wood fires, the fumes visibly wafted above the field, and a couple players had to hit their inhalers immediately while the coaching staff debated whether to bother practicing at all.

Welcome to what some would call the real South Africa.  Many reasons are behind the horrid pollution that rudely greeted New Zealand’s team.  South Africa is a democracy, so the country’s leaders could not shut their factories down the way the Chinese had demanded in the weeks leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.  Over one-third of South Africa’s people subsist on US$2 a day, so they can only afford to burn wood, garbage, or kerosene (the fumes of which are the equivalent of smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day) for cooking and heating.   Finally, coal is king in South Africa, and is the source generating over 70% of the country’s electricity.

And coal consumption in South Africa will only increase.  Eskom, the nation’s dominant electricity producer, recently received US$3.75 billion to build the nation’s first new coal burning plant in 15 years.   This plan has provoked sharp controversy over Eskom’s bid to procure carbon credits under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Defense Mechanism (CDM) for a plant that will emit about 25 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.   Environmentalists have criticized Eskom’s coziness with the South African government, most recently for its free reign in writing the country’s energy plan for the next 20 years, which of course will rely on even more coal.

There is some hope that South Africa can benefit from cleaner sources of energy:  wind energy will partly power the new Nelson Mandela Stadium in Port Elizabeth, and a private equity clean energy fund, the first of its kind in South Africa, has raised US$94 million from investors.  Some energy efficiency standards exist, which are mostly voluntary in nature and consist of a patchwork of feed-in tariffs and additional CDM incentives.

But these are just baby steps.  South Africa is still highly dependent on coal, and technologies like carbon capture and storage that coal producers tout are untested and expensive.  The emergence of democracy and apartheid’s end have given many South Africans new freedoms, but a brain drain and the ravages of AIDS have created a double whammy, making sustainable economic development a huge challenge.  And too many people cannot even afford the electricity available on the national grid, which explains the noxious fumes that gob-smacked New Zealand’s football team.

Though South Africa should be cheered over the next month as it enjoys its perch on the international stage, with some cool stadia to boot, hours after the winning country’s party in Johannesburg’s Soccer City winds down, the smog will still languish.  What was an annoyance for some athletes will continue to be reality for South Africa’s poor.  So here is the festering challenge for South Africa’s government and NGOs:  It won’t be enough to preach for the use of cleaner energy and a cleaner environment—but how can electricity be made affordable and accessible so that its youth will be healthy enough to play football—and more importantly—provide a future for themselves and their families?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is a business writer and strategic communications specialist. He has also been featured in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. When he has time, he shares his thoughts on his own site, Contact him at You can also reach out via Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost). He is currently living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.