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King coal makes its grand return

The energy transition plans agreed in Africa at last year's UN COP26 climate summit are on hold due to Russia's war

South Africa's coal exports to the European Union have increased tenfold so far this month compared to last year as European utilities ramp up purchases amid efforts to replace Russian volumes, according to vessel tracking data.

VesselsValue data showed 2.4 million tonnes of coal was shipped from South Africa's main export hub at Richards Bay, of which 0.56m tonnes was exported to European destinations such as France and the Netherlands.

This compared with just 0.06m tonnes – carried on one vessel to France – in the first three weeks of April last year.

EU countries banned new purchases of Russian coal on 8 April as part the bloc's fifth package of sanctions against the country in response to its invasion of Ukraine. Imports of Russian coal under pre-existing agreements will cease from 10 August. The ban's announcement has caused a surge in the price of coal worldwide. Tightening supply means that those prices are not expected to go down any time soon.

That is a boon for several African states, particularly South Africa, though logistical problems are likely to constrain a major increase in coal exports.

The phase out of coal and other fossil fuels had been one of the West's priorities, and African states were encouraged to agree individual Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETP) to finance the transition towards renewables at last November's UN Climate Conference (AC Vol 62 No 22, Leaders clash over climate).

South Africa's JETP involved $8.5 billion in grants and loans from the United States, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to support its transition from coal-fired power plants to cleaner energy sources (AC Vol 62 No 17, In need of a spark).

But that has been put on hold as Europe scrambles for energy sources to replace Russian oil, gas and coal.

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