On 10 November 2021, three South African NGOs (the African Climate Alliance, Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action and groundWork) initiated a constitutional challenge against the South African government’s plans to augment its coal-fired electricity capacity. Also known as the #CancelCoal case, this challenge invokes the protection of environmental rights, the rights of children, the right to life and human dignity, the right to water, healthcare and food, and the right to equality and protection from discrimination. Noting that South Africa is one of the top 15 current global greenhouse gas emitters, the plaintiffs argue that the procurement of 1500 MW of new coal-fired power stations threatens the rights of present and future generations in South Africa, who will be “left to deal with the consequences of extreme weather events, heatwaves, droughts, coastal flooding, famine, cyclones and social upheavals”. They submit that the constitutional rights violations caused by the new coal plants “will disproportionately impact the poor and the vulnerable, including women, children and young people”.
More details on the challenge:
In terms of standing, the applicant organizations brought their case in their own direct interest, in the interests of their members, in the public interest, and in the interest of the environment, noting the “far reaching consequences for present and future generations”.
The applicants invoke section 24 of the South African Constitution, which recognizes the right to a healthy environment. They argue that, by ratifying international agreements on climate change, including the Paris Agreement, the State recognizes the threat for this right posed by climate change. They also invoke section 28(2) of the Constitution, which guarantees the protection of the best interests of the child, arguing that “children are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and the further health risks caused by coal-fired power stations”. Noting that South Africa’s first NDC, submitted in 2015 and revised in 2021, committed to peaking emissions from 2020-2025, with net zero to be achieved by 2050, they submit scientific evidence from the IPCC to show the level of threat at hand and the different emissions reductions pathways discussed. Coal, they argue, “is the single most significant contributor to climate change”, and South Africa’s plants to procure more coal-fired power plants is “directly at odds” with global calls for action against coal, despite its vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, including from heat, storms, drought, rising sealevels, loss of species and biodiversity, and the psychological harms linked to climate change, as well as economic costs associated with responding to the effects of climate change, which will “divert scarce resources allocated to alleviating powerty and promoting sustainable development”.
The applicants also argue that the government’s references to “clean coal” are scientifically unfounded, and that it is unrealistic to argue that carbon capture technologies will mitigate the impacts of the new coal plants. “Climate change is the ultimate collective action problem”, they submit, and collective efforts are needed. South Africa’s support for coal undermines the global efforts in this regard, is inconsistent with South Africa’s “fair share” obligations, and is detrimental to the environment in a number of ways.
Invoking the constitutional right to equality together with environmental rights, the applicants argue that the action in question produces unfair discrimination “on intersecting grounds of race, gender, and social origin. This is because poor, black South Africans, and particularly women and children, are the primary victims of ecological degradation and air pollution caused by coal-fired power. They will also be the worst affected by the climate crisis”, as recognized in the government’s Environmental Impact Assessment (para. 358 of the application).
In terms of remedies, the applicants seek the review and setting aside of the decisions to procure new coal plants.
On 8 December 2021, the President of South Africa issued notice that he does not intend to oppose the application and shall abide by the decision of the court. On the same date, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy issued notice of his intention to oppose the application.
On 12 December 2022, in what was described as an “early victory” in the case, the Pretoria High Court ordered the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy to release records relating to the decision to seek new coal power, and to pay the costs of the application.
The full application form in this case is available from climatecasechart.com, as are further documents on the case.
High Court of South Africa, Gauteng Division (Pretoria), African Climate Alliance and others v. Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy and others, case no. 56907/2021, filed on 10 November 2021.
26 June 2023.