Sylvia remembers the first time a government official came to speak to her community in Lephalale, in the Limpopo province, about the construction of a new coal power plant. Like many other community members, she hoped that the plant would bring much-needed jobs and prosperity to her family.
What she did not anticipate then was how the plant would further pollute the air and water in the area, putting her family’s health at risk. Her husband suffers from severe asthma that he believes is a result of the air pollution in the area and that makes it impossible for him to apply for jobs at the coal power plant.
Eskom, the state-owned power utility, is currently operating two coal power plants in Limpopo and an independent power producer has applied for a licence to build a third one. Last year, Eskom itself estimated that air pollution from 13 plants across the country is causing more than 300 premature deaths per year.
As governments, businesses and civil society converge on New York to attend the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, they should be reflecting on the local and global impacts that government action or inaction on climate change will have on people like Sylvia.
Coal power plants, in addition to polluting the areas around them, are among the major contributors to global climate change, and in South Africa, coal-fired power stations are responsible for almost half of its carbon emissions. South Africa has already warmed at a rate twice the global average, and climate change is making droughts in South Africa more extreme and more frequent. Over the past few years, the recurring and worsening droughts in Limpopo resulted in severe water shortages, driving up the food prices and leaving residents like Sylvia without tap water.
Under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which South Africa is a party to, governments committed to significantly reduce their carbon emissions by phasing out fossil fuels—without doubt a challenging task for South Africa, given that 90% of energy is still produced from coal.
In its 2018 Draft Integrated Resource Plan the government committed to reducing South Africa’s reliance on coal for energy to less than 20 percent by 2050. However, investments in coal continue, including for export, and research suggests that South Africa will not meet its targets for reducing carbon emissions in 2030 under its current policies. A recently filed lawsuit contends that that the government’s failure to reduce the deadly levels of air pollution in the Highveld Priority Area is a violation of residents’ right to a healthy environment.
South Africa is not alone in its half-hearted approach to reducing emissions and regulating the coal industry. A new report by the UN human rights expert on the environment found that governments around the world, including those industrialised countries historically most responsible for the climate crisis, continue to support and subsidize investment in fossil fuels or other climate-harming activities—without regard to the local and global impacts on the most marginalised communities.
In the United States, the Trump administration is rolling back regulations on coal mining, despite the dangers to the health of some of the poorest people in the United States. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has undercut the environmental agencies responsible for protecting the country’s rainforest and effectively given a green light to illegal logging in the Amazon.
The urgency of the climate crisis is clear in a growing number of communities in South Africa and around the globe, particularly amongst those more marginalised and least able to adapt. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeatedly made clear, failure by governments to drastically reduce their carbon emissions will result in an increase in food insecurity, diseases carried by insects, and other serious health problems.
The Climate Summit in New York will bring a welcomed opportunity to focus on what governments need to do if they are serious about climate change. On September 9, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, asked governments to “contribute the strongest possible action to prevent climate change, and to promote the resilience and rights of [their] people”. They should listen to diverse voices from all parts of the world who can bear witness to the devastation already being wrought by climate change.
But environmental and human rights groups can also use their combined expertise to push for progress curbing the effects of climate change, including by identifying solutions that have proven effective and that respect human rights to address climate change. Climate change activists and Indigenous peoples have long been fighting for climate justice. Human rights groups, including my own organisation, Human Rights Watch, joined them more recently. Global and local groups working together, combining their skills and experience, can help ensure accountability in the fight against the climate crisis, locally and globally.
An important step in that direction will be the Peoples’ Summit, a global civil society gathering in New York. Environmental and human rights groups will meet ahead of the UN Climate Summit to strategise how they can work together most effectively, using the human rights framework to strengthen climate action and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable communities.
There are already some good examples of that at the local level. In Limpopo, environmental justice groups are challenging the construction of the new coal power plant based on its local and global climate change impacts, affecting the livelihoods of marginalised populations. Sylvia co-founded an organisation that is advocating to protect the health of women in her community from the impacts of coal power plants in Lephalale.
At the UN Climate Summit in New York, civil society groups should amplify these efforts in the international arena by pushing political leaders to take urgent and ambitious action on climate change that is necessary if they are to meet their obligations to protect the human rights of their people.
Liesl Gerntholtz, a South African, is deputy executive director at Human Rights Watch.