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A CENTURY from now, maybe sooner, it’s unlikely we’ll be using coal to make electricity. Or not much of it.

Wind and solar are getting cheaper and they are easier to set up than building a power station that runs on heat, be it from coal, wood, rubbish or anything else.

The problem is that we’re not there yet. Solar doesn’t work at night, the output slips in cloudy weather, and turbines stand idle when the wind doesn’t blow. Even hydro has its limits when rainfall is low and dams don’t fill high enough to drive the turbines. Batteries are getting better at storing energy, but we need baseload power – and lots of it – to run a city such as Chicago or Cape Town.

So what should we do in the meantime?

Coal is being used at record levels across Africa, and from Poland to Bangladesh, and it’s unconscionable to pump tons of smoke into the air when we have the technology to limit and contain these emissions.

But when activists talk about stopping coal now, or chant ‘Leave it in the ground,’ they are naïve. Most of these arguments are made by people in Europe, Canada or the US who have no experience of life without electricity. Little wonder they don’t understand the hardship of more than a billion people around the world who live permanently without power.

In London the Global Warming Policy Foundation recently published a paper on the links between a lack of electricity and the rise of militia across Africa. 

It demonstrated that without industrial levels of current, as used in the developed world, it is impossible to set up mines and factories and difficult to run a modern school or hospital, and that this is a key reason for Africa’s chronic unemployment problem. Wherever you look at where extremist groups are taking hold or criminal gangs are rife, there are also huge numbers of young people without jobs. And until we solve that problem, there is no chance of winning the war on terror.

The bottom line is that more than 600million Africans live without electricity. Countries such as South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe all get their power from coal. Two years ago Egypt announced it was building the world’s biggest clean-coal generator on the coast, and Tanzania has built a smaller one near the border with Mozambique. Kenya has been off-and-on with political wrangles over a similar project not far from the coastal port of Lamu. The latter met resistance from the public and, in a democracy, the government in Nairobi must take on board their concerns. But it will be a sovereign decision for the people of Kenya and no one else. Likewise, wind, solar, coal or gas projects elsewhere in the world must be sovereign decisions for those countries too.

Overlying this is a need for cleaner air. The Paris Accord on climate change has brought the world together in a pledge for lower emissions, so where fossil fuel is used, we must use the latest clean technology.

In my view, ‘climate deniers’ are those who pretend we can impose our will on others in the name of global warming, as though all 193 member states of the UN will magically come to heel. There is no room in 2020 for playing the ‘colonial overlord’ and it may even push some away from the goal of a cleaner planet. And what happens if a government decide to use oil, coal or gas? Do we go to war, impose sanctions, expel them from the General Assembly?

So, how about giving them the technology to burn it cleanly?

I am a scientist and have spent my working life researching how to get rid of toxic byproducts when using different types of fuel. At the clean-coal facility at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, we have done just that. We remove much of the dirt from the coal before it even enters the furnace, redesigning ovens to produce more heat and less fumes, and capturing what’s left, then harvesting elements for sale as byproducts.

I have overseen masters and doctoral degrees for academics from across Africa who have the same dream, and we liaise with like-minded schools in the US, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Australia.

The engineers and scientists we work with around the world are not tub-thumpers or activists. They are scholars doing peer-reviewed work on clean coal. Think of the smoky old cars we had in the 50s, and the early jet engines. Fast forward to unleaded fuel and energy-efficient planes: neither is anywhere near as clean as the new way of using coal.

Across Africa, firewood is still the most common source of energy for warmth and cooking, and it comes at a terrible cost to nature. By this I do not mean just the loss of trees, but habitats destroyed for everything from insects to elephants. West Africa has cut down an estimated 90 per cent of its forest. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Kenya and Tanzania have done the same with their coastal forests. Logging also has a huge effect on weather patterns and the environment.

Why does this continue? A major contributor is the lack of electricity. If we want to save our forest then the only way in Africa is by connecting homes to mains electricity.  That means for those countries that continue to use fossil fuel and especially coal, we must put money and research into a clean burn.

In northern Mozambique, the world’s biggest new gas field is being opened up with a jump in jobs and wealth. Do we tell them to stop? And would the government in Maputo listen? Mozambique has one of the world’s largest coal mines at Moatize, earning millions in foreign exchange. Should we bomb it? Angola and Nigeria earn almost all their income from oil. Will they shut the wells? Will Saudi or Venezuela?

From undergrad students to post-doctoral theses, when I mark papers and essays, my question is, ‘Are you writing about the real world, or a philosophical one that doesn’t exist?’ That’s the question for anyone with an opinion on pollution, conservation and how to better serve humanity. In a pretend world, you can alter the model any way you like to accommodate some theory or other. But in the real one, we’re stuck with poverty, unemployment and ego-centric politicians. Plus, of course, voters who are shouting for a better life. In Africa jobs are almost impossible to create without industry, and industry needs power.

Perhaps, like Morocco, you turn to the private sector. Or like Kenya you use geo-thermal energy while investing in large-scale wind and solar. Tragically, these success stories are way too few. Mozambique is among the world’s top 20 power exporters, but only a third of its own people have the lights on. In Chad, Burundi and Burkina Faso it’s fewer than one in five.

Changing this is vital. Africa has massive potential for wind, solar and hydro. It also has billions of tons of coal in the ground and vast reserves of oil and gas. The scarce resource is forest.

There is no choice but to electrify, and we can help Africa down that road. But we must treat Africans as equal partners, not children to be scolded into submission.

I don’t know when the use of coal and other fossil fuels will end, but it’s not any time soon. Until then, we must improve technology for wind, solar and hydro. But we also need to make sure every lump of coal has a clean burn.