South Africa has a long history of electricity shortages. According to a 1998 South African government white paper, the country's national energy planning was ill-conceived . The report also predicted that if South Africa did not start building new power plants, the country would have serious power problems by 2007. This case explains the local ecology conflict caused by the establishment of coal-fired power plant.
First, the state monopoly responsible for electricity generation and distribution in South Africa is a company called Eskom, which was established during apartheid in the context of South Africa's unique history, meaning that the grid was set up to serve more whites, bypassing black ghettos . Second, Eskom's corruption and mismanagement were among the major causes of South Africa's energy crisis . According to the news media , the company was under severe debt pressure. In addition, plant employees have engaged in mass protests and vandalism due to corruption at the company . An aging power infrastructure has exacerbated the local electricity pressure. For example, according to CNN , South Africans will have to endure 205 days of power outages in 2022 due to the collapse of an aging coal-fired power plant. What's more, as one of Africa's most powerful economies, continued economic growth is causing the country's electricity needs to grow. In summary, South Africa is experiencing severe power shortages.
According to Global Energy Monitor , the Thabametsi power plant is located in the Limpopo Province in the north of South Africa. The plant is located near a relatively abundant coal mine, and there are already two other established power plants near the mine. To build the new power plant, South Africa raised about $2 billion from 12 lending institutions. However, coal power plants have serious environmental hazards . First of all, the process of burning coal removes large amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. The acidic gases emitted at the same time can cause acid rain. In addition, the process of coal power generation consumes large amounts of water.
Savannah Environmental provided a third-party assessment of the project's impact on climate change . The report points out the severe climate impacts of the power plant. The report points out that the establishment of the power plant did not take into account the external costs of the project to the local environment. First, South Africa is known to be a country with severe water shortages. The area where Thabametsi is planned to be built is one of the provinces in South Africa where water resources are severely scarce. The establishment of a coal power plant would exacerbate the water shortage in the region and seriously threaten the water security of the region. Secondly, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, coal power plants will cause a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, which will aggravate local environmental problems. Besides, the establishment of the coal power plant and coal leakage mining will destroy the local biodiversity and biological habitat, and aggravate the local ecological environment although weak type. More importantly, the project does not propose feasible measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while minimizing the impact on the local ecosystem. As a result, the project began to face protests from various sectors of the community as early as 2017.
In 2017, local environmental organization Earthlife Africa challenged the legality of the establishment of the Thabametsi power plant by means of a lawsuit . As a result, the Pretoria High Court set aside the environmental approval for the plant, holding that the Environment Minister was obliged to consider climate impacts in her decision, but had failed to do so . According to the Centre for Environmental Rights , this was the first court case related to climate change in South Africa.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2018, the South African Minister of Environment granted environmental authorization to the Thabametsi power plant again . This authorization triggered a new round of legal battles by the environmental organizations Ground Work and Earthlife. These environmental organizations have challenged the legality of the project on various fronts. For example, they are challenging the power plant's environmental authorization, water use permit and greenhouse gas emissions related permits. At the same time, local communities and NGOs are putting pressure on the project to move forward with protests and marches. Not only from a legal point of view, but also through computer modeling, the research institute concluded that the establishment of the Thabametsi coal power plant was unnecessary, which would not only cost a lot of money but also cause serious harm to the environment. Also the power sector would need to invest a lot of money and manpower to fulfill its environmental commitments if it wanted to mitigate the environmental hazards.
This struggle continued for three years. In November 2020, several investors, including major banks, withdrew financing for Thabametsi. Thabametsi agreed to settle the litigation with Earthlife and groundWork, and notified government that it was cancelling the project . The High Court in Pretoria set aside the environmental approval of the project. This termination of the Thabametsi power plant marks a major climate victory for the local community.
In summary, this case presents an ecological conflict over energy. It is the result of a legal action and the success of a community struggle. At this stage, mankind is facing serious environmental problems, and traditional coal power generation has been proven to cause great harm to the environment, and new energy sources are urgently needed.