U.S. abstains on vote to proliferate coal in South Africa

SA Coal PicToday the United States abstained on a World Bank vote to approve a $3.75 billion loan for South African utility Eskom to build a 4800 megawatt coal plant. Ultimately, the loan was approved. But the U.S. vote sends a clear signal that the U.S. government is not willing to accept business as usual – continuing a trajectory of unabated carbon pollution – without due consideration of the environmental consequences.  CAP’s Kari Manlove has the story.

It is further encouraging that the U.S. vote is consistent with the Treasury Department’s recently released guidelines for multilateral development banks’ financial support of coal-fired power plants, as the Center for American Progress discusses in their report Development Funding Done Right.

Last month the World Bank announced a $400 million loan to Indonesia to develop its geothermal resources, and South Africa has acquired a similar loan to co-finance grid-connected solar thermal, utility-scale wind, energy efficiency, and solar water heaters. Both of these loans are through the bank’s Clean Technology Fund, which recently announced its intention to mobilize $40 billion toward low-carbon growth in developing countries. Investments such as these build on the spirit of cooperation that emerged last December in Copenhagen between developed and developing countries to jointly move toward a global clean energy economy.

The World Bank has a responsibility to show leadership in fostering large-scale investment in sustainable economic growth. It should be using its resources to help developing countries choose low-carbon development pathways. Despite the outcome, it is worth noting that the U.S. vote encourages more aggressive moves in this direction.

25 Responses to U.S. abstains on vote to proliferate coal in South Africa

  1. mike roddy says:

    Why didn’t the US just vote “no” on the loan?

  2. Jerry Stockton says:

    This is financially more correct than subsidies to the brown out wind turbine energy. Good move.

  3. Ivy Bear says:

    Just say NO! Voting no would have a real impact. The loan ended up being approved! Why is this a big marker? Are we supposed to be satisfied with this? If you maintain that we should be, then you are really setting expectations too low.

  4. “A journey of a thousand li starts with a single step.”
    — Lao Tzu

    “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”
    — Voltaire

  5. PeterW says:

    This is a bad joke. Twenty years ago this sort of thing would have meant something. We don’t have the time to play games anymore. This is just another nail in the coffin.

    Winston Churchill
    “America will always do the right thing… once they’ve tried everything else.”

  6. Ivy Bear says:

    Logic Deferred:
    The time for single steps occurred about 20 years ago.

    The perfect is the enemy of the good is nice but trite.

    Symbolic actions are still symbolic. They have no real

  7. Peter W say it correctly, we do not have time to play any longer. But it is a beginning.
    Since we are approving new coal plants here how can we say no to people who are starving for power?
    We have to stop all new coal plants here and now to set an example. See Paul Grugman article on this point too.

  8. sasparilla says:

    Its funny, we just dropped out of this vote – which is for a massive (truly large) coal plant in South Africa and we let everyone know we were going to be not voting ahead time – courage for you, yeah for us! We went in the corner and hid so we wouldn’t have to make a tough choice. Call it as it was – we were a bunch of cowards.

    I noticed in the British papers, they were publicly debating and agonizing over the vote – if they voted No it appeared it wouldn’t make it. Sounds like they didn’t vote “No” or someone else voted “Yes”. The coal plant backers had made it a all or nothing type of proposal – trying to cast it in as politically charged a way as possible. There were lots of other options for power generation there if they were pursued, but this was ready to go, easy and had lots of money’d interests behind it.

    I disagree with this piece – The US government would be sending a signal that it wasn’t accepting business as usual if it had voted no. The message it sent is that we won’t rubberstamp new Coal plant funding for these kinds of things in this administration (I wouldn’t call that a huge victory) – but we won’t get in the way of it happening either.

  9. Abstaining on a 4.5 Gigawatt coal plant may have some obscure political meaning but to me it means disaster. It is not the case that time is running out; it has run out! Obama looks to be finished as a climate savior, First he proposes that we drill offshore. What a signal that is!! Now he accepts a huge coal plant without a fight, another signal to climate deniers and coal and oil companies that if they continue their pressure, they will win. Giving in before the fight is not the way to save our planet.

  10. John McCormick says:

    If the commenters angered by the US abstaining on the South Africa loan had some awareness of the electricity reserve margins and increasing demand for electricity within its struggling economy, there might be a bit of understanding. Or, are their comments merely flailing away at shadows. Perhaps this loan is the North Star of the world’s response to global warming. How about some proactive thinking and doing and less reactive complaining?

    You may not have the political connections to intervene in South Africa’s electric power problems but you could have seen this loan coming because the country’s base load demand requires more than intermittent power sources and S.A. saw coal was its only option. Then, raising the issue with the Obama Administration, AID and the State Department might have prompted the US to take a more comprehensive approach to the loan request…something on the order of a smaller loan package for the coal unit and a similar loan package for energy efficiency retrofits (sorely needed in South Africa).

    It is easier to carp and bark than it would be to raise concerns about South Africa’s electricity shortfall long before this loan came before the WB. Or, maybe it is impossible to steer any nation away from the precipice, On that we seem inept here in the U.S.

    John McCormick

  11. I have been aware for many years of South Africa’s electricity problems and also the needs throughout Africa. However, nuclear can supply base load without emitting CO2. Oh yes, it is more expensive and the loans would have to be greater. Nonetheless, the world must – MUST make a stand against CO2 emissions. If not now, WHEN? When it will be too late, I fear!!

  12. John McCormick says:


    South Africa’s Eskom recently dropped its Pebble Bed Reactor program and that was a sad moment. Perhaps China will intervene and agree to share its on-going Pebble Bed reactor research, knowledge, expertise and possible financial assistance.

    John McCormick

  13. SecularAnimist says:

    “But the U.S. vote sends a clear signal that the U.S. government is not willing to accept business as usual – continuing a trajectory of unabated carbon pollution …”

    The loan was approved, and the business as usual trajectory of unabated carbon pollution continues.

    If the US government was “not willing to accept business as usual” they would have voted no. To abstain is to “send a clear signal” that in fact they ARE willing to “accept” business as usual.

    Bottom line, the loan was approved, more coal will be burned, more CO2 will be omitted — for decades to come. There is no good news in this story.

  14. David says:

    Geez, just tell it like it is and drop the spin. The Obama administration didn’t want to actually stop the project from happening, for many political reasons. However, they didn’t want to go on record as voting yes and tick off the environmentalists. So they just abstained. Yeah, real brave.

  15. John McCormick says:


    read this notice from the Treasury Department explaining the US vote.

    You might not see any good news in the story but you have to see the world of electricity shortages in South Africa as a critical matter. Treasury Department made a sensible decision and there will be some better news coming out of this.

    John McCormick

  16. SecularAnimist says:

    John McCormick wrote: “You might not see any good news in the story …”

    Building more coal fired power plants that will continue to emit huge amounts of CO2 for decades to come is not good news.

    Nor is it good news that — as the Treasury Department notice makes very clear — contrary to the assertion in Kari’s article and contrary to the Obama administration’s rhetoric, the US government IS “willing to accept business as usual”.

    In fact the Treasury Department notice is little more than a litany of excuses for “accepting business as usual”.

  17. Tammy Skillings says:

    The U.S. Export-Import Bank tells us it has issued a “preliminary commitment” letter to Petrobras in the amount of $2 billion and has discussed with Brazil the possibility of increasing that amount. Drilling in Brazil.
    Is it another move of Imperialism for us to dictate to south Africa what it does? How would America feel if South Africa visited China and told China to stop loaning America Money. America is broke and needs to become fiscally conservative.

  18. Actually the loan is a (somewhat lopsided) mix: Worldbank provides loan for S Africa energy supply in this mix: $ 3.05 billion for coal, $ 0.26 billion for renewables, $ 0.49 billion for the coal railway and other stuff:

  19. Bob Wallace says:

    Are we possibly getting our bloomers in too big a bunch over South Africa building a coal plant?

    In terms of CO2 emissions per capita South Africa is #47 on the list of countries (2006 data). They release 8.6 thousand metric tons per person. And they have a population of about 49 million.

    We, here in the US, release 19.5 thousand metric tons per person. We’re #9 (behind some fairly small, mostly Mid-east oil producing states). And we have a population of 309 million or so.

    South Africa 44% as much CO per person.

    South Africa 16% as many people.

    Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to cutting down on the number of coal plants we’re operating?

    (Oh, and Canadians – you’re #10 on the list at 17.7 thousand metric tons per person. So don’t go all Maple Leaf on us. ;o)

  20. James Newberry says:

    Bob Wallace, the factor of “thousand” should be removed from your per capita data if these are annual figures, I believe.

  21. Bob Wallace says:

    James – thanks.


  22. Liz says:

    It’s really unclear to me — how does anyone in the United States dare criticize South Africa for building coal-fired power plants when no-one is doing anything to stop their being built in the U.S.? When the Treasury Department (or Congress, or the President) decides to shut down all our coal-fired power plants and forbids the construction of any new ones, that’s when the U.S. can vote no on a loan to other countries to build them.

    Let’s get our own over-consuming, pollution-generating house in order before we start dictating to others.

    Thanks, Bob Wallace, for the rational voice.

    (And thanks to those that recognized that abstaining from the vote was not at all a sign of Treasury’s principled decision-making!)

  23. Bob Wallace says:

    Liz – new coal plants are being blocked in the US. Several have been blocked. Seems to me that we’ve just about quit building coal burners.

    Additionally several existing coal plants have been converted, or are in the process of being converted, to natural gas and biofuel burners.

    Natural gas isn’t a perfect solution. But it releases approximately half the amount of CO2 per unit electricity produced as does coal. And does not produce carbon black/soot. It’s a help cutting down, not a permanent fix.

  24. Liz says:

    Hi Bob — Thanks for the info. Is there a federal law prohibiting new construction? Or have these been blocked by citizen action or a state objection to a particular design or lack of pollution controls?

    Is the U.S. considering legislation to de-commission existing coal-fired plants? Mandating improvements to emissions?

    (This isn’t at all my field, so pardon the ignorance. But I feel that we don’t have a place criticizing other countries’ choices until we fix our own energy choices here.)

  25. Bob Wallace says:

    Not my field either, but I’ll share what I know…

    The coal plant construction permits that I’ve seen denied have been at the state levels. I doubt that there is a federal permitting process for new power plants of any sorts. Could be, I just don’t know. (There might be some EPA regs.)

    Kansas, Colorado, Wisconsin and South Dakota are states who seem to have blocked the construction of new coal plants.

    I doubt that we could get a law passed to decommission existing plants at this time. I doubt we have surplus power on the grid which would allow shutting coal plants without causing grid shortages. And the voting public, at this point in time, would be very unhappy if they started having lots of brownouts.

    As we bring more green energy on the grid and decrease our power usage through conservation we will be able to start shutting coal plants, but I’m guessing we’re a few years (5?) from that point.

    California (at least a few cities) have notified coal plants that they will cease purchasing power from them in the near future. They’ve contracted for enough green energy to allow them to drop coal contracts.

    I think we’re at the beginning of the process of getting off coal. I expect the rate of transition away from fossil fuels to greatly accelerate over the next few years as the cost of green energy continues to decline and our nationwide political will to push the process grows.

    We experience a really hot 2010 (which we’re on track to do) and look for a lot more interest in changing our evil ways. If we get any sort of summer like that was experienced by Australia in 2009/10 and there’s going to be pressure to decrease CO2.

    As for decommissioning existing coal plants I don’t think this will be our first step. First step might be seasonal mothballing. From what little I know about this stuff it seems that our big power need peaks are during the summer. We might start shutting down coal plants for 8-9 months of the year and bringing them back to life to absorb some of the summer need to power air conditioners.

    Again, like natural gas, not an ideal solution. But a danged good step toward the end goal….