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Coal is still a vital energy source for developing nations

Your report about Britain's indecision in the runup to last week's World Bank vote over a loan for a cleaner coal plant in South Africa did not highlight the vital importance of coal for developing nations, many of whom enjoy vast reserves (UK dilemma over massive coal-fired power station, 2 April).


Britain should have supported the loan to South Africa of £2.4bn to build the Medupi plant, one of the largest and most efficient coal-fired power stations in the world. Instead it abstained, although the vote was carried.


Your report stated: "A coalition of more than 100 grassroots organisations, including churches, community groups and conservationists condemned the loan." But it is not realistic to encourage South Africa, a fast-developing nation rich in low-sulphur coal reserves, to turn to more expensive non-indigenous fuels for future power generation. Abandoning fossil fuels could mean the diversion of funds for basic infrastructure development and delay the urgent construction of more energy-generating capacity.


You quoted the Department for International Development, which was then dithering over the vote: "We haven't made the decision yet. It's very difficult." This hardly reflects the claim on the DfID website that "economic growth is the single most powerful way of pulling people out of poverty". Indeed it is, and economic growth needs abundant and cheap energy at the point of delivery.


As your article pointed out, South Africa has suffered from power shortages in recent years, affecting inward investment, economic performance and quality of life, especially among the poorest. That is why it urgently needs new generating capacity. As South Africa's public enterprises minister Barbara Hogan is quoted in your report: "If we do not have that power in our system, then we can say goodbye to our economy and to our country."


Importantly, your report failed to note that the evolution of commercially viable clean coal technology with carbon capture and storage (CCS) can only proceed if new high-efficiency, lower-emissions coal plants, such as Medupi and Britain's smaller but equally important Kingsnorth plant, are given the green light. They can then be fitted with CCS at a later stage when it is ready.


Coal is the world's most abundant fossil fuel, and its use for energy provision will increase by 60% in the next 20 years. Last week's abstention by Britain at the World Bank reflects badly on a country which claims to want to lead the world in the new viable clean coal technologies which are now emerging. Many in the UK clean coal sector are deeply concerned at the prolonged so-called clean coal "competition" which the government set up in 2007 to build one of the world's first commercial-scale CCS demonstration projects. Three years later there is no clear outcome.


Britain's support for a key Commonwealth ally would have allowed it to take the lead in an organisation whose members have over half of the world's coal reserves, and to push for a strategy on clean coal at next year's Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

Tony Lodge
guardian.co.uk



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