Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Lumps of coal or a boost to development?

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Driving at night in Cameroon some years ago, I saw schoolchildren sitting under the streetlights doing their homework—because they had no electricity at home.  Today 560 million Africans live without access to electricity.  No country in the world has advanced economically without adequate power supply.

Electricity is essential not just to power factories and offices, but to ensure that milk and drugs are transported safely, and that kids—especially those in rural areas who don’t even have streetlights—get an education.

Africa emits 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.  South Africa, a country that has not invested in power generation in 20 years, is trying to provide much-needed electricity to its citizens and those in neighboring countries by investing in one of the cleanest “supercritical” coal plants—cleaner than many in the U.S. and Europe.  It is also investing $250 million in solar and wind power and $485 million in energy efficiency improvements and a cleaner transport system to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from moving coal from the mine to the power plant.

This project is coming under some criticism for not using wind and solar power alternatives—even though these will be available at scale only “by 2050.” 

Given this project’s minuscule contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, do we want South Africans to forgo the additional electricity for the next 40 years?


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

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