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2021: While the pandemic drags on, climate action picks up pace

7 December 2021 at 11:02 am

Activists demonstrate outside the Pretoria High Court at the hearing of the Deadly Air case in May 2021. Photo by Daylin Paul
Activists demonstrate outside the Pretoria High Court at the hearing of the Deadly Air case in May 2021. Photo by Daylin Paul

2021 has been the second year of navigating the unprecedented global COVID-19 pandemic. Much has been lost and endured during the past two years. We acknowledge the incredible resilience and grit shown by CER staff and by environmental and climate justice activists across the country this year – continuing to stand up and fight for environmental, social and climate justice, often at great risk and cost to themselves.

During 2021, the Centre for Environmental Rights’ work has been driven by a growing sense of urgency: to support and defend the fast expanding environmental and climate justice movement, and to accelerate climate action and a just transition to a more equal, climate resilient, fossil-free future.

Here we look back at the milestones of a year that has been both exhilarating and challenging.

Building solidarity for environmental and climate justice

2021 started on a high note with a momentous legal victory for environmental activism and free speech: the Western Cape High Court found that the 2017 defamation lawsuits brought by a mining company against two CER attorneys and four other activists constituted SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) and an abuse of the legal process. The Constitutional Court will hear an appeal against this judgment on 17 February 2022.

This year, our new online Violations Reporting Portal made it easier for activists to report violations of environmental rights and laws directly to the correct authority. This new facility was launched in July 2021, in collaboration with three government departments (Mineral Resources & Energy, Water & Sanitation, and Forestry, Fisheries & Environment).

Another 15 community activists completed our Environmental Rights & Remedies Course for Activists in 2021 – this year, this course had a special focus on women activists. Over the past 5 years, CER has trained 80 activists, of whom 42 are women. After their graduation, CER remains in touch with these activists and supports ongoing peer exchange amongst graduates.

We are also thrilled to be part of the realisation of a long-standing dream to set up the new Environmental Justice Fund – a new small-grants facility set up by a group of environmental justice groups to provide direct funding and related support to community-based organisations working in the environmental and climate justice space in South Africa. CER Activist Support & Training programme head Matome Kapa has been appointed as the first chair of the board of this Fund. We expect the Fund to be operational by early 2022.

Demanding climate action from big emitters and those who finance them

CER has a long track record of challenging South Africa’s big polluters and emitters to clean up their act, both in public and private.

ArcelorMittal South Africa (AMSA), a steelmaker with a long history of pollution in the Vaal Triangle and elsewhere, is South Africa’s third-biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter. In May 2021, together with environmental justice group the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance, CER attorneys attended AMSA’s Annual General Meeting to challenge its board and management about the company’s plans for reducing its pollution and GHG emissions, and to transition away from coal towards new technologies like green hydrogen. We continue to engage with AMSA on a regular basis.

Petrochemical giant Sasol is South Africa’s second-largest GHG emitter, and its Secunda facility is the world’s largest single-source GHG emitter. In November 2021, CER attorneys participated in Sasol’s Annual General Meeting alongside many other activists. Although Sasol has finally committed to a net-zero by 2050 target, there are many concerns about its ability and commitment to do so, including concerns about its increased reliance on fossil gas as a feedstock.

Together with our partners in the Fair Finance Coalition, CER continues to challenge both public and private financial institutions to change their investment and finance policies and practices to stop financing fossil fuels, and to enable a just transition to a fossil free future. In March 2021, following on our report on the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Industrial Development Corporation in 2020, together with Oxfam South Africa we launched a new report on the New Development Bank. In July 2021, we launched a second report in the series on public finance institutions’ investment policies and decisions – this time, focused on the Industrial Development Corporation’s decision to fund MC Mining, previously Coal of Africa, an mining company with coal mines in Limpopo.

A just transition to a fossil free future

CER participates in a number of partnerships and networks, including the prominent Life After Coal campaign – a longstanding partnership with environmental justice groups groundWork and Earthlife Africa. In July 2021, the Life After Coal campaign launched its Just Transition Open Agenda, setting out a vision of the just transition that is broad, intersectional and inclusive. This agenda, with is subject to regular review, is the product of several years of work by groundWork, Earthlife Africa, CER and our community partners.

This Open Agenda also informs CER Executive Director Melissa Fourie, Earthlife Africa Director Makoma Lekalakala, and groundWork director Bobby Peek’s work as commissioners on the Presidential Climate Commission. This commission is a new multi-stakeholder body established in December 2020 by President Cyril Ramaphosa to advise government on its response to climate change and the just transition.

Ahead of the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow in November 2021, and after sustained advocacy by CER and other civil society organisations, the Climate Commission recommended a significantly more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for South Africa than government had initially proposed – a recommendation that was adopted by Cabinet in September 2021. Although the approved NDC Update still falls short, it represented significant progress on South Africa’s climate action and set the scene, at the start of COP26, for the announcement of a political partnership between South Africa and a number of northern countries to support South Africa’s Just Transition through climate finance. While many details around this climate finance must still be resolved, this partnership kickstarts an important process of planning and quantifying the costs of the coal phase-out and the Just Transition.

In 2022, both CER and the Life After Coal campaign will ramp up resistance to the roll-out of new gas extraction, storage, transport, and power infrastructure in South Africa, and promote the transition to fossil-free renewable energy – including publicly and socially owned renewables. The work of groundWork and CER in opposing proposed gas projects has already posed major obstacles to a number of these projects going ahead – these include the contentious Karpowership gas to power projects and the MW Nseleni Floating Power Project.

The power of public interest litigation to promote climate justice

Protecting a strategic water source area from a new coal mine

The six-year court battle of a coalition of civil society organisations, represented by CER, to set aside regulatory approvals given for a large new coal mine to defend a Mpumalanga Strategic Water Source Area and a declared protected area, continued in 2021.

In January 2021, the Mpumalanga MEC de-proclaimed parts of the Mabola Protected Environment outside Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga to allow the controversial coal mine to proceed. This forced the coalition to approach the High Court, where it was successful in securing a court interdict to stop the mining company from commencing mining pending the outcome of the other legal challenges. In April 2021, the coalition launched court proceedings to set aside the MEC’s decision to exclude the proposed mining area from the protected environment – a case that will continue in 2022. In November 2021, an appeal by the mining company against the interdict was refused by the Constitutional Court, with costs.

Standing with the families fighting against air pollution from coal

In May 2021, the so-called “Deadly Air” case went to court and was heard in the Pretoria High Court: this is an application by our clients groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, represented by CER, with the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights and the Environment making submissions on the rights violations of coal-based air pollution as amicus curiae (friend of the court). This hearing was accompanied by significant local campaigning and mobilisation by the applicants, particularly the courageous activists from Vukani Environmental Justice Movement based in Emalahleni in Mpumalanga – one of the most polluted places in the world. Judgment was reserved and is anxiously awaited.

Stopping new coal power stations

After the 2020 court victory for Earthlife Africa, represented by CER, that led to the shelving of the proposed Thabametsi coal power plant in Limpopo, this year the High Court confirmed that the environmental approval for a second large coal power station, Khanyisa power station in Mpumalanga, had expired, effectively marking the end of the plans for this project. This case was brought by groundWork, represented by CER.

As a result of the closure of these two planned projects, Thabametsi and Khanyisa coal power plants:

  • 212 million tonnes of GHG emissions will never enter the atmosphere;
  • more than 720 000 cubic metres of precious water per annum, for 30 years, have been saved;
  • significant air pollution that would have further harmed the lives and health of residents of Lephalale and eMalahleni and surrounds has been avoided; and
  • the South African public has been spared from unnecessary expenditure of ZAR19.3 billion compared to a least cost electricity system (which is renewable and flexible and has no new coal).

A landmark youth-led climate case

#YouthClimateStrike protest in front of Parliament on 24 September 2021. Photo: Chris de Beer-Procter

In November 2021, after years of advocacy to persuade government to abandon plans for 1500 MW of new coal power, our clients the African Climate Alliance, the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement and groundWork, represented by CER, launched the youth-led #CancelCoal climate case.

The launch of proceedings was preceded by the publication of a series of new coal and climate expert reports that serve as supporting evidence in the case. These expert analyses included reports on:

The #CancelCoal case is supported by written testimonies from individual youth, women and members of coal-affected communities, who share their stories on their concerns for a future affected by climate change and the pollution of more unnecessary and harmful coal-fired power. The case will continue to unfold in 2022.

We thank all our clients, partners, and funders for their incredible support during 2021. We will be back for more in January 2022!