In a ruling this week, the high court has forced the government to account for climate change impacts in its planning. This comes after the environment department gave a coal-fired power station permission to be built, even though it only had a single paragraph to consider how the plant would contribute to climate change.
That impact would be profound, with the plant accounting for 4% of the country’s total emissions by the 2050s. Signing off on this project is at odds with the imperative for all countries to lower their carbon emissions.
South Africans are already, per capita, the 12th-highest emitters of carbon in the world. We account for nearly half of the continent’s emissions. But the effects of climate change will be disproportionately felt here and across Africa. Rainfall patterns are already changing, with farmers unable to plant in time to avoid winter frost, and extreme heat is drying out entire provinces.
But the need to do something about this is not translating into functional policy. Big business – with its long history of externalising its pollution and making the poorest pay through diseases such as asthma – and other government departments have consistently blocked climate change legislation and a carbon tax. They are so successful at this that the environment department cannot even get factories to tell it how much carbon they emit.
This means that, even though South Africa says the right things, it is doing very little beyond writing policy papers. This has left people both inside and outside government frustrated that the climate change crisis is being ignored.
In this particular case, it meant the environment department signed off on a coal-fired plant because the energy department – vested with more political power – had advocated for its construction. It therefore fell to civil society group Earthlife Africa to appeal that decision, and go to court to argue the case. The court’s ruling – that legislation “overwhelmingly” supports the need for climate change impacts to be properly considered before a project can go ahead – sets a precedent.
Now, the government has to consider climate change in its thinking. That could force policy to move one step closer to reality.