South Africa’s plan to build new coal-fired power stations during the climate crisis is being challenged in court for breaching the rights of current and future generations.
Three civil society organisations have launched a constitutional lawsuit in the North Gauteng high court against the South African government, arguing that its energy policy is incompatible with the national constitution.
Coal makes up about 80% of South Africa’s energy mix, and the government intends to add 1,500MW more over the next six years as part of its 2019 integrated resource plan.
The fuel is the single biggest contributor to the global climate crisis, and also causes serious local environmental problems such as air and water pollution. Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency said no new coal-fired power stations could be built if the world is to stay within safe limits of global heating.
Although South Africa has not explicitly agreed to phase out the fossil fuel, it was one of 197 countries to commit to “phasing down” coal at the Cop26 global climate summit in Glasgow last week.
Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African president, admits the climate crisis is “the most pressing issue of our time” and that developing economies are particularly vulnerable. As well as the direct dangers of rising temperatures, the climate emergency poses a particular threat to South Africa because of its existing water and food insecurity.
But, despite being given about $8.5bn (£6.3bn)_from European countries and the US to help it move away from coal, Gwede Mantashe, the energy minister, said it would continue to play a significant role in the nation’s electricity generation.
Campaigners say the problem is not being taken seriously enough, pointing to research by the University of Cape Town and the Climate Equity Reference Project that shows the coal plans are not compatible with South Africa meeting its climate commitments.
The youth-led African Climate Alliance, the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action and Groundwork argue that continuing coal development breaches constitutional rights to life, dignity and equality, the right to a healthy environment and children’s rights.
The campaigners say there is no justifiable basis for limiting their constitutional rights because renewable energy is a feasible alternative and is cleaner and cheaper than new coal power.
Gabriel Klaasen, youth coordinator at the African Climate Alliance, said it was “beyond time” that young people and vulnerable communities are taken into account and their needs prioritised. “Without this, I can’t imagine a future that is not defined by continued and increased suffering.”
Nicole Loser, the head of the pollution and climate change programme at non-profit Centre for Environmental Rights, which is representing the claimants, said climate litigation had already put significant pressure on the country’s coal industry.
Permission for the Thabametsi coal plant in Limpopo province had to be resubmitted after EarthLife Africa Johannesburg showed climate change had not been taken into account in its environmental assessment. Although the permit was reissued, the project has since been scrapped.
The energy minister and the national energy regulator of South Africa have been approached for comment.