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2022: Fighting for a just transition to a fossil-free future

9 December 2022 at 11:26 am

Rights & Remedies Course for Environmental Justice Activists Class of 2022 Graduation | Photo: Mad Little Badger
Rights & Remedies Course for Environmental Justice Activists Class of 2022 Graduation | Photo: Mad Little Badger

As we reflect on the milestones of 2022, we are grateful for the dedication of CER staff and supporters, and heartened by the growing, diverse and vibrant environmental and climate justice movement in South Africa and beyond. While we have not yet seen the global climate action we need at the scale and speed required in this critical decade, much progress has been made in 2022 to move South Africa’s just transition away from dirty coal to renewable energy –  in a way that also avoids the risk of getting locked into gas.

Supporting and defending the environmental and climate justice movement in South Africa – and beyond

2022 marked the 6th Rights & Remedies Training Course for Activists, with 15 community activists from across the country joining us in Cape Town for an intensive three-week course in September, focused on knowledge and skills required for engaging with a just transition. This brings the total number of Rights and Remedies graduates since 2017 to 94, many of whom have gone on to take up positions of leadership within the environmental and climate justice movement in South Africa. Over 50 of these graduates are women activists. Also on the gender justice and women’s leadership front, we have continued to collaborate with our partner MEJCON-SA to roll out training workshops on gender-based violence in mining-affected communities.

This year, we were excited to support the establishment of the Environmental Justice Fund – an activist-driven, feminist NGO that provides support to environmental and climate justice organisations in South Africa. With a diverse board that includes CER Activist Support & Training programme head, Matome Kapa, and its new staff complement in place, the Fund has already started to extend grants for community-based environmental justice struggles in South Africa. The Environmental Justice Fund is a fund “for activists, by activists”, and we hope that it will provide much needed resources for community organisations.

Our climate advocacy work this year included the roll out of a well-received education campaign to mobilise civil society and community organisations around the Climate Change Bill, currently open for public participation in Parliament. In addition we have made submissions on the bill and other climate regulation issues, such as carbon tax.

Earlier this year we launched a campaign to combat some of the myths around natural gas. This included a new fact sheet on the harms of gas that brought together global scientific evidence and expert local research to show why investing in gas as an energy source in South Africa is unnecessary, economically risky and poses public health and climate change threats.

In November, the South African Constitutional Court handed down two landmark judgments in the SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) suit against two former CER attorneys and others.

Together, the Constitutional Court judgments recognise, for the first time, that SLAPP suits are an abuse of process, and carve out a limitation to trading corporations’ ability to claim damages for reputational harm. The court also carved out a limitation to trading corporations’ ability to claim damages for reputational harm.

The judgments have important consequences for the protection of activism and the rights and responsibilities of corporations in South Africa and beyond – particularly in view of growing threats against activists worldwide.

Holding institutions of power to account

This year we continued to build on our work around challenging both private and public financial institutions to stop financing fossil fuels.

Together with our partners in the Fair Finance Coalition and the Life After Coal campaign we have tracked and shared information, and made public comment on the $8.5 billion Just Energy Transition Partnership and Investment Plan that form part of the agreement between the SA government and the governments of the U.S., UK, France, Germany and the EU.

Our work to ensure a just transition from fossil fuels in South Africa continues, including engaging in the work of the Presidential Climate Commission. The Commission adopted a Just Transition Framework in May, which was approved by Cabinet in late August 2022. As part of the Life After Coal campaign, we are working to flesh out the demand for – and investment in – the environmental and social components of the just transition, including restorative justice around health impacts of coal, and involving communities in the rehabilitation and restoration of mining areas. This work falls within our collaboratively developed just transition “manifesto” known as the Just Transition Open Agenda.

This year, for the first time, CER sent a delegation to the COP27 climate summit in Egypt. In addition to speaking on a number of public platforms, this allowed CER staff members to collaborate with other civil society organisations, engage with decision makers and provide analysis of the events at COP27 for local audiences.

In relation to specific companies and facilities:

Working FOR THE REALISATION OF ENVIRONMENTAL RIGHTS using public interest litigation

In February, we celebrated a landmark victory for environmental justice in South Africa with the High Court judgment in the #DeadlyAir case, first launched in 2019. In the judgment, the High Court recognised the poor air quality in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Highveld region as a breach of residents’ Constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being – and ordered the government to take steps to address the poor air quality.

The judgment is a major victory for the activists from the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement and groundWork who put their heart and soul into fighting this case. The government has indicated its intention to appeal parts of the judgment. Even as we celebrated this victory with our clients, we filed a new appeal against further postponement of compliance by Eskom for its dirty coal power stations.

In May, we were thrilled to confirm the expiry of the environmental approval for a large new coal power station in Mpumalanga, known as KiPower – after several years of multiple legal challenges. The end of this third coal power station planned by private companies (after Thabametsi and Khanyisa) has prevented 4.2 million tonnes per annum of carbon dioxide equivalent – the primary greenhouse gas causing global warming – from entering the atmosphere.

In October 2022, two cases aimed at setting aside approvals for the greenfields coal mine in the Mabola Protected Environment in Limpopo province – after a campaign of almost eight years – were heard by the Pretoria High Court. Judgment was reserved.

In November, South Africa’s first youth-led climate change case, the #CancelCoal case, made its first appearance in the Pretoria High Court in an application to compel the Minister of Mineral Resources & Energy to release important documents relating to government’s plans for new coal-fired power.

We have launched a number of new court applications this year, all focused on preventing new fossil fuel developments on climate grounds. These include a  judicial review application to set aside approval for a new coal mine in Lephalale, Limpopo and judicial review applications to set aside approvals for new gas developments: the Phinda gas to power plant in Richards Bay and Richards Bay Gas to Power 2.

Looking ahead to 2023, the need to slow down the pace of greenhouse gas emissions, protect our soil and our water, build climate resilient communities and ensure that our laws support environmental and climate justice and protect Constitutional rights remains crucial. This is particularly important in South Africa, which has been identified as a climate change hotspot.

Please consider supporting the work of the Centre for Environmental Rights to accelerate climate action and a just transition to a more equal, climate resilient, fossil-free future. We have an easy-to-use online donations portal, and as a registered public benefit organisation, we issue Section 18A certificates to donors on request.