An Oxfam activist  in a protest aimed at the COP17 conference on climate change on December 9, in Durban, South Africa.

Story highlights

Brian Dames is the CEO of South Africa's power utility company Eskom

He argues that coal has allowed SA to become Africa's biggest economy

South Africa is committed "to move towards a lower carbon footprint over time," he says

CNN  — 

It might be one of the world’s worst polluting energy sources, but coal has allowed South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy, according to the chief executive of the country’s power utility company Eskom.

Speaking to CNN’s Robyn Curnow, Eskom’s Brian Dames said coal has been key to fueling South Africa’s economic growth and improving the lives of many in the country.

“We’ve been very successful in the use of coal in growing one of the largest economies, in bringing electricity to the majority of South Africans – we’re absolutely not defensive about it,” said Dames.

South Africa gets 86% of its energy from coal and, despite the criticism that it is bad for the environment – when burned, coal emits more air pollution and greenhouse gases than other major energy sources – Dames argued that South Africa will continue to use the natural resource.

An edited version of the interview follows below.

CNN: Why is coal important for South Africa?

Brian Dames: It’s about energy security first and foremost for us, it’s about affordable energy, it’s about energy access. You would agree with me without those three things there is no economic growth, no poverty alleviation, no job creation in any of our economies.

And then it is about, as we do this, how we can do it in a more cleaner manner and at the same time make sure we deal with issues such as job creation – can we create green jobs – so we’re very clear as to where we want to go and what the balance is and that commitment is there – it is there to move towards a lower carbon footprint over time.

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CNN: What percentage of energy do you get from coal?

BD: It’s more than 80%, about 86% of the energy, and it has put us in a position as a company and as a country to really fuel the economic growth in South Africa. That’s why this country has got the largest economy on the African continent, that’s why we operate one of the world’s 10 largest power companies.

CNN: Eighty per cent of all your energy comes from coal – that is dirty energy and South Africa is the biggest producer of coal in the world. Don’t you find that difficult in terms of charting a green future?

BD: No, it is not difficult. We should be quite clear, because South Africa’s emissions is about 1.5% of global emissions, the continent’s emissions is about 3% of global emissions, it’s less than 200 times than what’s in the U.S.

What you’re asking us to do is not do that, not have electricity, not have energy security and not have energy access.

CNN: I think the reality is Eskom relies heavily on coal, South Africa historically has relied heavily on coal to produce its electricity. Why do you seem a bit defensive about it?

BD: No, we’re not defensive, absolutely not. Coal has been used very successfully and will be used in future in South Africa. It’s a natural resource that we have, we’ve been very successful in the use of coal in growing one of the largest economies, in bringing electricity to the majority of South Africans – we’re absolutely not defensive about it.

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CNN: But it is dirty energy and there is an excess of reliance on coal.

BD: It’s not a question of being defensive, it’s a question about the ill-informed, because you want us as a country to be cleaner and not have electricity and energy and that is a problem.

CNN: That’s not what I’m saying, it’s a fact that South Africa relies heavily on coal.

BD: It is a fact and successfully have done so. We’ve said clearly growth is important, we have said clearly that we’re committed to a low-carbon future over time, so it is not growth at all costs.

South Africa has got a very clear path and strategy and is fully committed to deal with that. South Africa has made very clear commitments in terms of its CO2 emissions. South Africa has also made it very clear that it is a developing country that must grow, that we must see the establishment of funding to make sure that it is available for us to do so.

We have a clear path as to how we make sure we grow and how we make sure we respond to the needs of the environment and as a country and as company we’re fully committed to that.

CNN: Is nuclear still a very big part of your plans?

BD: South Africa has produced a 20-year energy electricity plan and that plan has got an inclusion of nuclear. That plan says, of the additional capacity of the next 20 years, 42% of it will be renewables, 23% of it will be nuclear, because we do have requirement for base-load energy.

We can’t stall electricity – nuclear as a base-load energy option is a viable option for this continent and again, coming back to my previous point, no one option, whether coal or renewables or hydro will solve our energy problems in the future. We need a combination of all of it, and including nuclear for that matter.