Earth­life wins first case against coal power

CityPress - - Business - SIZWE SAMA YENDE busi­ness@city­press.co.za

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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