COAL vs RENEWABLES: Is the fight against coal as a major source of energy finally being won?

02 Aug 2019
02 Aug 2019

The coal versus renewables debate has sparked controversy globally. Environmental lobby groups, civil society, public interest groups and other non-governmental organisations, clamour for the replacement of coal by renewable sources of energy. Courts and other tribunals appear to have heeded to these calls, as seen in recent landmark decisions in African countries like South Africa and Kenya.

The perils of coal and other fossil fuels as sources of energy are well documented. Drawbacks include significant health and environmental impacts, including air and water pollution, environmental degradation and global warming. Conversely, coal-proponents allege that it is cheaper and more readily available. In South Africa it has been asserted that coal mines employ more than 85,000 people. This is a major factor supporting the continued use of coal as a source of energy. A closer analysis however suggests that there are at least 30% more jobs in solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind farms as compared to coal mines. The development of natural gas, hydropower and nuclear power plants would also create employment opportunities for South Africans.

In July 2019, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) dismissed attempts by a mining company to appeal the decision of the High Court which set aside permissions for the construction of a new coal mine inside a “protected environment”. The Mabola Protected Environment in Mpumalanga, where the new coal mine was to be constructed, was conferred such status under the Protected Areas Act in 2014 by the provincial government. This watershed decision sets the precedent that government cannot authorize the construction of coalmines in areas that have been designated as “protected environment”.

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) represented the Respondents (a coalition of different environmental organizations) in this matter. The CER felt it was critical to set precedent on the need to assess adequately the impacts of coal on communities. CER’s aim is to hold the government accountable to its obligations in terms of s 24 of the Constitution, which codifies everyone’s right to a healthy environment. This necessitates forcing government properly to assess and address the urgent issue of climate change. This also means not authorizing more coal power stations due to their harmful effects on the environment and on people’s health.

Despite studies indicating coal mining’s adverse effects, it appears that the South African government is not committed to replacing coal with renewable sources of energy. At a recent mining conference, the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy favoured coal-fired power over other resources. He stated that “it is not about killing coal and growing renewables, but about promoting various technologies at our disposal”. This raises questions relating to whether coal and renewables are complementary and should be treated as such, or whether they are competitors. This position is contrary to the government’s long-term energy plan, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which envisages an overall reduction in coal-generated energy by 2030. Already we have observed several banks withdrawing support for investments in the mining of fossil fuels and coal-fired power stations.

The move away from coal seems to have gained momentum in other African countries as well. In June 2019, the National Environmental Tribunal of Kenya in a landmark decision halted plans by the government (with Chinese financial backing) to construct the country’s first coal power plant near the coastal town of Lamu. Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and so is a protected area. The presence of such a plant would pose a risk to its protected status while also increasing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and polluting the environment, including water resources. The tribunal’s decision echoes South Africa’s SCA decision in relation to protected areas or the so-called “protected environment.” Both decisions are in line with the global fight to stop climate change and to phase out the use of fossil fuels.  

The tribunal found that the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) had violated the law by authorizing the construction of a coal power plant without conducting a proper environmental impact assessment. It also found that, in addition to failing to inform the community living in the area about the size of land that had been acquired to build the plant, NEMA did not inform them about the likely health effects of the emissions from the plant. This does not constitute adequate and effective public participation. The tribunal’s decision emphasizes the importance of public participation, and that community interests are central and must be taken into account before such projects are approved.

This ruling was delivered amid protests by civil society groups like deCOALonize (a campaign bringing together affected community groups to challenge the purported establishment of a coal industry in Kenya). They claimed that the community’s livelihood would be affected if such a plant were built. Agriculture and fishing, being key economic activities in the area, would be affected. Critics also alleged that by financing the project China, despite having committed to reducing its carbon footprint, is simply outsourcing its fossil fuel use. At least a quarter of the coal power stations planned or being built around the world are financed by China. The tribunal’s decision is a positive step toward the goal of moving away from coal.

In July 2019, President Kenyatta of Kenya launched what is considered to be Africa’s largest wind power plant. This project, dubbed the ‘Lake Turkana Wind Power Project’, on the shores of Lake Turkana, is already producing approximately 310 megawatts of renewable energy to the national grid – about 15% of Kenya's installed capacity connected to the national grid. This project is expected to play a central role in the transition from coal, to promote clean and sustainable development.

It is becoming increasingly evident that future energy supply is going to be through renewable energy sources. Coal is no longer as attractive a source of energy as it once was. Germany has closed its coalmines, while Australia and the USA are following suit. This is set to become a trend in other countries around the world. In South Africa, the cost of coal has increased gradually over the last two decades, whilst the cost of renewable sources of energy continues to decline. Coal has numerous detrimental effects to the environment and to people’s health. Although a number of jobs will be lost during the shift to renewable energy, employment opportunities will be created with steady development of renewable energies. It has also been established that renewables provide more jobs than coal. It seems economically viable to transition from coal to renewable energy, in line with the international efforts to combat global warming.

The fight against coal as a major source of energy is being won, at least in the courts.

Written by Kennedy Chege.