Environmental Approval For Thabametsi Withdrawn; Coal Project Officially Dead

17 Dec 2020 by Staff - Water Diplomat
PRETORIA, South Africa

The North Gauteng (South Africa) High Court has set aside the environmental authorisation for the 1500 MW Thabametsi power station, thereby ending the long saga of environmental dispute brought by NGOs Earthlife Africa, GroundWork, and Friends of the Earth against Thabametsi and the state of Limpopo.

Thabametsi had been backed by South Korea’s KEPCO and Japan’s Marubeni, who themselves had stepped in after a French developer withdrew under the environmental pressure in 2015. Earthlife Africa challenged the environmental approval in court in 2017 in the first climate change court case to be filed in South Africa.

Using government design guidelines, the project’s climate change impact assessment showed that it would be one of the most emission intensive plants in the world but, crucially for the region, the impact assessment also showed that the project’s existence was at risk due to water scarcity, which would be further exacerbated by climate change.

Subsequent and additional legal challenges brought by the NGOs, mostly concerning improper paper work, included environmental authorisations, water use licences, atmospheric emission licences and approvals by the National Energy Regulator of South Africa.

Last month OOSKAnews reported that continuation of construction was in doubt following the withdrawal of the commitments of South Africa’s major lending banks, its Public Investment Corporation, and key investors KEPCO and Marubeni Corporation. These decisions are viewed to be significant in that South Africa is reliant on coal to increase generation capacity.

The agreement to settle the lawsuits was accompanied by a decision to cancel the project.

Despite the fact that the country is one of the world’s top ten coal producers and Africa’s biggest CO2 emitter, the government has pledged to reduce emissions by more than one-third by the end of 2020 under the Copenhagen Accord through retirement of numerous coal plants and increasing investment in renewable energy sources.

Nicole Loser of the Centre for Environmental Rights offers that the lawsuit has been highly successful: “Not only did we manage to create new jurisprudence and legal precedent to aid future campaigns, but the litigation has pushed for better decisions that align with Constitutional rights, backed up by science and economics.”

Cancellation of the project means that:

  • creation of 136.1 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent GHG emissions will be avoided.
  • 720 000 m3 of water per annum, for 30 years, will be available for alternative uses, a notable fact ha in a highly water scarce region of a water scarce country forecast to be particularly hard hit as the climate crisis intensifies
  • significant new air pollutio has been avoided; and
  • importantly, the South African public has been spared unnecessary expenditure of approximately $43.8 Billion USD.

The government still appears to be backing new coal-fired power generation capacity but both science and economics now suggest that all new coal projects be abandoned and be replaced with cheaper renewable energy.

A statement from the Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries indicates that “the department is committed to ensuring that the Constitutional rights of South Africans to an environment that is not harmful to health and well-being are always taken into consideration, while ensuring that economic growth is not hampered. South Africa has adopted the National Development Plan (NDP), which maps out the vision of the country for the 20 years ahead.

“This includes the transition to a lower carbon economy and climate resilient society in line with the overarching principle of sustainable development, which is the cornerstone of the NDP’s vision 2030.”