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South Africa's transition from coal could be a model for other countries

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ahead of the U.N. climate summit in Egypt, South Africa's president announced a plan today to help the country transition away from coal-fired power plants. South Africa relies on coal for nearly 90% of its electricity. The U.S. is among several wealthy countries trying to help it switch to clean energy. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier reports this deal could become a model for helping other countries.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: In unveiling details of the plan, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said the Just Energy Transition Partnership was the first of its kind, but he said it was just a down payment on what South Africans need to both fight climate change and poverty.

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PRESIDENT CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: While the initial funding committed by partner countries will play an important catalytic role, it is not sufficient to meet the scale of our ambition.

FRAZIER: The $8.5 billion deal includes donors the U.S., U.K., France, Germany and the EU. For the past year, the countries have been trying to hash out details of the plan. South Africa has reportedly clashed with the donor countries over its preference to spend money on electric vehicles and renewable hydrogen, not just on replacing coal with wind and solar power. And South Africa wants more of the funding to come in grants, not loans, which can saddle developing countries with debt. Bella Tonkonogy is with the nonprofit Climate Policy Initiative.

BELLA TONKONOGY: I think it's always going to be messy, right? There's a lot - I mean, any time there's a lot of money on the table, it's messy.

FRAZIER: Still, Tonkonogy thinks the agreement could be a template for other developing countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and India. This begins to fulfill a key element of the Paris climate agreement - to create partnerships between donor countries responsible for much of the planet's warming and developing countries that are more likely to experience the consequences of climate change.

TONKONOGY: And partnership is a really critical word there. It's not donor recipient. It's partners.

FRAZIER: The aid would mostly be in the form of loans, but many of these would be subsidized, meaning they could still be a good deal for South Africa, says Todd Moss, head of the Energy for Growth Hub, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

TODD MOSS: So by getting the United States government or the European partners involved in loans, you can make those loans much longer than they would be strictly in commercial terms. You can make the interest rate lower.

FRAZIER: South Africa has faced climate-fueled disasters recently like deadly floods and intense droughts. Leanne Govindsamy, a lawyer for the South African Centre for Environmental Rights, is hopeful about the deal. She spoke from a restaurant in Johannesburg because it had electricity. The country's had rolling blackouts because its aging coal plants often have to shut down, a problem she hopes clean energy will remedy.

LEANNE GOVINDSAMY: We have such bad coal-fired power infrastructure that we have to transition.

FRAZIER: By one measure, South Africa has the most inequality in the world. Govindsamy says the aid plan should include more in grants for social programs for the quarter of a million workers in South Africa's coal industry.

GOVINDSAMY: This has to involve projects that are beyond what the private sector would see as important because they would have very little - limited return on investment.

FRAZIER: The plan is moving into place. South Africa's state-owned utility closed a coal-fired power plant and will replace it with wind and solar. None of the plant's workers got laid off. They all got jobs elsewhere in the company.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Reid Frazier