Why this matters: Environment department paves way for more coal-fired power plants

The world is warming at an unprecedented rate in human history. Each of the last three years has successively set the record for the hottest year on record. The Arctic has shrunk to its lowest-ever extent. Droughts are becoming more intense, and flooding does more damage.

Much of this is down to human emissions of greenhouse gases. Their concentration in the atmosphere of 400 parts per million is higher than at any point in human history. The largest emitter of these gases in South Africa is Eskom’s fleet of coal-fired power stations, which make up half of national emissions.

Those emissions help warm the planet. Per person, South Africans are the 11th highest emitters of carbon in the world. That warming will disproportionately affect this part of the world, and the wider African continent. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN’s body on climate issues, says that as a general rule of thumb, whatever the average global temperature increase, it is doubled on this continent.

That’s a problem when the Paris Agreement – which saw governments agree to do all that they can to keep average global temperature increases below 2°C – will mean a much warmer continent, even if each country pulls its weight.

South Africa is already a degree hotter than it was a century ago. That means the rains come later, shortening the growing season, while that rain comes in more intense and damaging storms. It also means 40°C temperatures in Limpopo in summer, and the cold fronts that bring winter rain to the Western Cape retreating further south.

The national Climate Change Response White Paper says that the coast will warm by around 1 to 2°C and the interior by around 2 to 3°C. By 2100, warming is projected to reach around 3 to 4°C along the coast, and 6 to 7°C in the interior.

It is worth quoting the full section on this in the White Paper:

“This will significantly affect human health, agriculture, other water-intensive economic sectors such as the mining and electricity-generation sectors as well as the environment in general. Increased occurrence and severity of veld and forest fires; extreme weather events; and floods and droughts will also have significant impacts. Sea-level rise will negatively impact the coast and coastal infrastructure. Mass extinctions of endemic plant and animal species will greatly reduce South Africa’s biodiversity with consequent impacts on ecosystem services.”

Most countries have targeted lowering emissions from the power sector as their way of lowering national emissions. South Africa has, on paper, done the same. The Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme has seen nearly 5 000MW of renewable energy being built. Prices have dropped as a result, with the first plants built half a decade ago selling electricity for around R2.40 per kilowatt-hour, and plants now selling electricity for around 70c per kilowatt-hour.

That means less carbon into the atmosphere, and less global warming. China’s renewable programme has been so successful that it has cancelled the construction of nearly 100 coal-fired power stations. But, as the Mail & Guardian reported last week, the South African energy department has asked private companies to build 2 500MW of coal-fired power capacity.

To get the go-ahead to build, these plants had to get environmental authorisation from the environment department. The Thabametsi plant in Limpopo’s Waterberg district did just this. Environmental group Earthlife Africa Johannesburg appealed the granting of this authorisation, saying that the department had not sufficiently considered the impact that the plant will have on global warming. The department rejected the appeal so the group went to court, asking that the authorisation be set aside.

Earthlife based its arguments on two things: Section 24 of the Constitution guarantees people the right to a healthy environment, which is threatened by global warming. And the fact that South Africa is a signatory to the Paris Agreement means that the country has to do all that it can to lower emissions. Building coal-fired power stations is at odds with either of these.

But, in practice, South Africa’s commitment to tackling climate change is weak. Its plan, as part of the Paris Agreement, will allow it to increase carbon emissions by 50% – something which has been roundly criticised. Climate Action Tracker, a group which analyses these plans, says: “If most other countries were to follow South Africa’s approach, global warming would exceed 3°C to 4°C.”

And, anyway, the environment department says in its court papers that “South Africa’s obligations have not been enacted in national legislation” so “they do not bind parties within the Republic”. This means South Africa can build coal-fired power stations, and help warm the world, even if that warming is catastrophic.

The Thabametsi plant will operate until the 2060s. By then, it will be contributing 4% of the whole country’s carbon emissions.

As the M&G reported, defending this construction has made people in the environment department unhappy. One said: “We hate this case.” Another said the department would find itself on the wrong side of history.

But much of this comes down to how successful industry has been at opposing any climate change legislation. Treasury has consistently delayed the proposed carbon tax. Large polluters have even stymied attempts by the environment department to collect data on how much carbon they emit. This data would allow subsequent legislation to be enacted, giving a limit on carbon emissions for each sector, such as power generation.

That means that South Africa is stuck. In its court documents, the environment department says: “There are presently no sanctions within the legal framework for companies that do not reduce their greenhouse gas emissions [but] the department is in the process of developing and implementing a comprehensive mitigation system.”

A victory for Earthlife might change this, giving legal impetus to attempts to lower South Africa’s carbon emissions. A defeat would set back these attempts, ensuring that more and more carbon can be pumped into the atmosphere. That will accelerate local warming, with damaging consequences.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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