Earthlife wins first case against coal power

The Waterberg in Limpopo has been declared a national priority in terms of air quality management. (AP)
The Waterberg in Limpopo has been declared a national priority in terms of air quality management. (AP)

Environmentalists believe they have struck a major blow to the future of coal-powered stations, following their win in the first climate change case in the High Court in Pretoria this week.

Earthlife Africa took Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa to court after she granted environmental authorisation for the establishment of the 1 200 megawatts coal-fired Thabametsi power station in Lephalale in Limpopo, without a climate change assessment having been conducted.

Thabametsi is one of 10 independent power stations that the department of energy wants to build to augment Eskom’s power supply.

In October, Thabametsi and Khanyisa, based in Mpumalanga, won the first bid window to build South Africa’s first independent coal-fired power stations under the country’s Coal Baseload Independent Power Producer (IPP) programme.

Thabametsi received its environmental authorisation on February 25 2015, but despite Earthlife’s appeal, Molewa upheld her department’s decision on March 7 2016.

Nicole Löser, attorney in the Centre for Environmental Rights’ Pollution and Climate Change programme, said the judgment made it clear that a climate change impact assessment had to be done before an environmental authorisation could be provided for a new coal power station.

“[The] judgment is a major blow for the future of the coal IPP programme. The reality is that the climate effects of coal power plants cannot substantially be avoided or reduced.

“For that reason, it is difficult for them [the ministries of energy and environmental affairs] to meet the requirements of the Constitution and environmental laws. Clean, cheap renewable energy sources such as solar and wind do not suffer from this legal constraint,” Löser said.

“Given that these are coal plants, which will have unavoidably significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – GHGs radiate heat, making the earth warmer – and given that South Africa is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, in all future applications the environmental affairs department will have to weigh these heavy risks against any alleged social or economic benefit to be derived from the power stations.”

Molewa did not indicate whether she would challenge the court’s decision. Written questions sent to her office were not answered.

Exxaro Resources is contracted to supply the Thabametsi plant with coal.

Exxaro spokesperson Mzila Mthenjane said: “Exxaro will engage with the project developer to understand the issues raised in court and the remedial actions to determine the impact on the entire project. However, Exarro will be proactive to protect its mining right in the event of extended delays to the power station development and related coal supply.”

But, added Löser: “These new coal plants are all very long-term projects [averaging 40 years], using significant amounts of limited water and posing a risk to the quality of that water. It will be ... difficult for these projects to obtain environmental authorisations ... because they will be exposing South Africa to further vulnerability to climate change effects.”

Löser said IPP projects would incur additional costs for the climate change assessment to be done and such assessments would recommend costly mitigation measures to lower GHG emissions.

“Coal-fired power plants are the single largest source of GHG emissions in South Africa. It cannot be denied that the Thabametsi plant or any new coal plants will emit a significant amount of GHGs. The question is, therefore, whether it should be authorised at all.

“Given the viable and cheaper renewable electricity alternatives such as solar and wind, the electricity sector is the easiest in which to reduce South Africa’s GHG emissions – much easier than the transport and agricultural sector, for example,” Löser said.

Judge John Murphy ordered Molewa to consider a climate impact assessment report, a paleontological report and comments on these reports from affected parties before granting an environmental authorisation for the power station.

Coal power stations have also proven to be a source of respiratory illnesses. According to a 2016 report released by environmental justice nonprofit organisation groundWork, titled The Destruction of the Highveld: Digging Coal, bad air can cause illnesses such as asthma, strokes, emphysema and heart attacks.

According to the World Health Organisation, air pollution causes one in eight deaths.

In South Africa, 2 200 deaths are caused by coal-powered electricity stations, according to research by groundWork and Friends of the Earth International.

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