High court rules for climate change to be considered in power station authorisation

In early March, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, represented by Centre for Environmental Rights, challenged the Minister of Environmental Affairs in court for upholding the environmental authorisation for the proposed Thabametsi coal power station.

Earthlife had previously appealed the environmental authorisation granted for Thabametsi by Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) on the basis that the impacts of climate change were not adequately assessed or considered when the decision was made.  The National Environmental Management Act requires that the environmental impacts of proposed power stations are assessed when decisions are made regarding environmental authorisations, and Earthlife asserted that climate change impacts are relevant and should have been considered.

Thabametsi is expected to emit over eight million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year over its 40 year operational lifespan, contributing 2 per cent to South Africa’s total emissions by 2020.   The power station will also impact water and land use, affecting communities and ecosystems.

In March 2016, the Minister of Environmental Affairs ruled on Earthlife’s appeal, recognising that climate change impacts were not comprehensively assessed or considered, and amended the environmental authorisation by adding a request that a climate change impact assessment be undertaken and reviewed by DEA.  However, she upheld the environmental authorisation.

In court this month, Earthlife argued that in upholding the environmental authorisation, the Minister had made it impossible for it to be withdrawn if the climate change impact assessment showed that it should not have been granted in the first place.  Earthlife contended that the Minister was therefore acting unlawfully and undermining the purpose of the climate change impact assessment.

On 08 March, the North Gauteng High Court ruled in favour of Earthlife, stating that proper consideration should have been given to the climate change impacts of the proposed power station before a decision could have been made to allow it to go ahead, and ordering the Minister to take into account a full climate change impact report and all public comments received.

Earthlife’s victory has been widely lauded, and this case is likely to have wide-reaching implications regarding environmental authorisations for future coal power stations.

A copy of the judgement is available on the CER website: http://cer.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Judgment-Earthlife-Thabametsi-Final-06-03-2017.pdf