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Lessons learnt from the COVID-19 lockdowns and implications for the future

Byron Zamasiya, Rodrick Moyo and Michelle N Matsvaire -Climate Change and Energy Program, Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

Amidst a global pandemic COVID-19, it is very difficult not to notice the threat that could be posed by a changing climate headed to a point of no return especially if economic models continue to be designed in a manner that maintains the status quo which disregards carrying capacities of natural support systems. Severe droughts, intense tropical cyclones are just but a few examples that the developing world is currently struggling with in addition to the recent impacts of COVID-19 also believed to be linked to human and ecosystem interactions. Climate change remains a major public policy problem facing humanity as a whole in the 21st century and the implications are catastrophic for developing countries who still heavily rely on fossilised fuels. Fossil fuels are the major contributors of Green House Gas Emissions (GHG)[1]. Unless major strides are made in limiting climate change to less than two degrees of warming above the average global temperature of pre-industrial times, the world will plunge into a climate uncertainty[2]. Most Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have committed to reducing their Green House Gas (GHG) emissions under the Nationally Determined Contributions. This is also buttressed by the development of Low Emissions Development Strategies and a low carbon growth strategy. In March 2020, most countries around the globe implemented national lockdowns to halt the spread of COVID-19 pandemic across the globe. During this period, major sources of GHG emissions were closed or operated at a very low level. In this article, we focus on the lessons learnt from COVID 19 and what developing countries can do to maintain a low carbon development strategy.

Key lessons

There are two major lessons from the COVID 19 induced locks:

  1. Reducing GHG emissions is possible

During the COVID 19 induced lockdowns, “mother earth” enjoyed a reprieve in GHG emissions largely from the heavily industrialised economies as most heavy industries were closed[3]. In developing countries like Zimbabwe, the uninterrupted power supply to household users who had been enduring 18-hour power cuts is a testimonial that mining companies who are the major power consumers[4] in the country had at least scaled down their operations. However, there was an exemption for coal mining companies who continued operating due to their strategic importance to energy security for the country. Never mind that the energy security hinges on fossilised fuels! Despite this temporary drop, some reports indicate that the world will still experience a rise in GHG emissions in 2020. However, the exciting news is that the emissions for the rest of the year are expected to be below the emissions in the absence of a lockdown.

  • Crude oil is a major polluter

The world oil market took a tumble in April 2020 with supply far outstripping demand. Major producers of oil found themselves stranded with volumes of oil which nobody wanted[5]. While businesspeople wailed over the fall in prices, planet earth sighed a huge relief. The fall in demand for oil due to a halt in mobility induced by the COVID 19 pandemic highlights that consumption has indeed fallen drastically. Since oil is one of the major sources of GHG emissions, the fall in demand provides a major reprieve to GHG emissions. Post-COVID-19 lockdowns, the fall in oil prices may be very detrimental to GHG emissions due to increased consumption by consumers. Further, due to the low oil prices, most oil companies may fail to put in place strategies that encourage the production of cleaner energy transitions around the world[6].


The time to transition towards renewable energy is now

The fight against climate crisis is a game that offers no extra time. Given this urgency, the time for developing countries to transition to renewable energy is NOW. One challenge that Africa has is whether willingly or not civilization by fossil fuel usage is coming to its end. The question presented to the continent is whether it should plan and control the shift or wait till it wakes up with stranded assets from fossil fuel-powered plants. The COVID-19 lockdowns have highlighted that indeed it is possible to reduce GHG emissions. In light of this, developing countries should seek to promote low carbon or renewable energy power generation projects.  Such projects can be done through private-public partnerships. Further, governments can also incentivise power generation from renewable resources by private players. The incentives to the investors can include tax holidays and exemption of customs duty on all green energy products. There is also an urgent need for the global north who historically benefited from the dirty fossil fuel industries to bail out the global south through the transfer of technology on green energy grants rather than loans which further places the continent into an already ballooning debt trap.

Let us not forget the COP24 Katowice Declaration on Just Transition and Solidarity

The report on stranded assets highlights that developing countries are caught at crossroads, including meeting their developmental needs using available natural resources and at the same time achieving climate action ambitions. The narrative among developing countries that are heavily endowed with natural resources is pinning socio-economic development and transformation on fossil fuels[7]. Zimbabwe has huge coal reserves in Sengwa and Hwange. Given the availability of these natural resources, the key question is, should Zimbabwe build new thermal power stations or maintain the current ones? Reports show that power-production at the Hwange (capacity of 920MW ) and Munyati (capacity of 120MW) thermal power stations is now expensive[8]. The two plants are not running at full capacity as the installed equipment is now very old and subject to regular breakdowns leading to reduced thermal power production. Under these circumstances, there is every reason for the Zimbabwean Government to develop an exit strategy from fossil fuels to renewable. On May 14, 2020, a newspaper report by Herald indicated that the Government has allowed commencement of coal mining in Hwange after a Chinese investment of US$12 million partnering a local company, with 28 special grants also issued to prospective coal miners, which however are far being utilised. Furthermore, reports show that in August 2018, the Zimbabwe Power Company commenced work to expand the Hwange Thermal Power Plant’s capacity from 920 MW to 1520 MW[9].  Zimbabwe is hinging its plans on coal resources for being energy sufficient in 2024[10]. Strikingly, despite its support for climate change matters, the country continues to greatly rely on coal-powered thermal stations that emit large amounts of Green House Gases making it to fall short of any envisaged climate targets. Moreover, the country should undertake any further development along this trajectory cautiously cognisant of the speedily changing global trends also indicated in various statements of the UN Chief where he calls for ending subsidies for coal-powered projects in his opening remarks at the COP25 in Chile and also during a global solidarity statement on Earth Day 2020 celebrations.  

There are also reports that Zimbabwe has concluded a deal with China to fund the establishment of a Thermal Power Station at Sengwa Coal Mine[11]. At full capacity, the plant will generate 2800 MW of electricity. Given the power outages in Zimbabwe and the crippling debt to Eskom South Africa[12], the ordinary citizen would see this as a welcome development. However, progressing with the thermal power plant at Sengwa Coal mine would represent a very regressive move on the country’s commitments to the UNFCCC through the NDCs, the Paris Agreement and the realisation of the Low Emissions Development Strategy. Access to energy is a requirement for socio-economic development and transformation, However, financing any new fossil fuel projects anywhere are unacceptable due to the dangers that fossil fuels pose to society and our planet earth. Interestingly, this project is being pushed forward at a time when all other major funders are pulling out of funding thermal power production projects. If China has the financial clout to fund such a massive thermal power generation project, would the resources not be better used in funding a renewable energy plant?  One also wonders whether Zimbabwe would be able to continue receiving post-installation technical support and spare parts given the transition to renewable energy by most countries in the global north?  Will this not be another Santana vehicle saga where government ended up stranded with vehicles that became too expensive to maintain and whose parts were unavailable?[13] Further, Zimbabwe risks being haunted by a stranded asset once the coal reserves run out or reach economically unviable levels for continued extraction. The economic costs of establishing a thermal power plant highlight how selfish it would be to pursue a thermal power project when the whole world is moving towards green energy. A key output from the COP24 is the Katowice Declaration on Just Transition and Solidarity. This declaration provides that countries that are reliant on thermal powered power stations should put in place measures to move to renewable energy[14]. Zimbabwe is one of the many countries grappling energy poverty but the country has an opportunity to develop its energy sector using clean renewable energy since it is well endowed with renewable energy resources especially in solar radiation. Establishing a thermal power plant when the world is battling with the climate crisis would be counterproductive.

This article concludes that for the world to urgently address the climate crisis, efforts should be put to establish renewable energy power projects. Developing countries would need grants and not loans from the global north to achieve this target. Locally, the governments in developing countries should incentivise investors who embark on such projects. The initial targets for these projects should be conglomerate mining companies. 

[1] Clarke, L. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change ( Edenhofer, O. et al.) Ch. 6 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014)

[2] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Report of the Conference of the Parties on its Fifteenth Session, held in Copenhagen from 7 to 19 December 2009. Part Two: Action taken by the Conference of the Parties at its Fifteenth Session.United Nations Climate Change Conf. Report 43 http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2009/cop15/eng/11a01.pdf(UNFCC, 2009)

[3] https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-what-impact-will-the-coronavirus-pandemic-have-on-atmospheric-co2

[4] https://www.get-invest.eu/market-information/zimbabwe/energy-sector/

[5] https://www.bruegel.org/2020/04/covid-19-is-causing-the-collapse-of-oil-markets-when-will-they-recover/

[6] https://www.iea.org/reports/oil-market-report-april-2020

[7] https://i.unu.edu/media/inra.unu.edu/publication/5247/DIscussion-paper-Africas-Development-in-the-age-of-stranded-Assets_INRAReport2019.pdf

[8] http://www.zpc.co.zw/powerstations/5/munyati-power-station

[9] http://www.zpc.co.zw/powerstations/1/hwange-power-station

[10] https://www.chronicle.co.zw/coal-output-projected-at-15m-tonnes/

[11] https://www.iea-coal.org/zimbabwe-to-commence-construction-of-sengwa-thermal-power-station/


[13] https://allafrica.com/stories/200010260189.html

[14] https://cop24.gov.pl/presidency/initiatives/just-transition-declaration/

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