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.