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Victory: Environment Minister orders the disclosure of big polluters’ climate information

9 April 2020 at 11:52 am

ArcelorMittal South Africa's Vanderbijlpark plant Image: James Oatway
ArcelorMittal South Africa's Vanderbijlpark plant Image: James Oatway

The Centre for Environmental Rights publishes this media release acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances of this moment and the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on lives, health, and livelihoods for people around the world and in our country. We stand in solidarity with our people during these challenging times.

The Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has upheld the appeal lodged by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) against the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DEFF) 2019 refusal to disclose key greenhouse gas (GHG) emission data and GHG emissions reduction plans for 16 heavy polluters.

In so doing, Minister Creecy has ordered DEFF to disclose GHG data of some of South Africa’s highest GHG emitters, including Eskom, Sasol, ArcelorMittal, PPC, Exxaro, South32, Glencore, Seriti, SAPPI and Anglo American.

The original request for information

The CER filed an access to information request under the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 (PAIA) to DEFF in February 2019. In response, DEFF provided the CER with redacted records of:

  • the companies’ annual GHG emissions;
  • their plans to reduce their GHG emissions over the next 5 years; and
  • audit reports demonstrating whether there had been progress against these plans.

The DEFF had blacked out information such as the companies’ anticipated emission reductions for the next 5 years.

The appeal

In December 2019 the CER filed an appeal to the Minister in terms of PAIA, calling for the disclosure of the companies’ redacted production and usage rates – crucial information for verification of GHG emissions stated in the reports – as well as the anticipated emissions reductions from all the companies’ pollution prevention plans and audit reports.

The Minister’s decision

The Minister’s 5 April 2020 decision upholds the CER’s appeal, and orders the DEFF to make the redacted GHG emission values available to the CER within 7 days from the end of the COVID-19 lockdown period.

“The Minister’s decision sends a strong signal that big polluting corporates cannot hide behind government when it comes to GHG emission data. Data on companies’ anticipated GHG emissions are invaluable to enable the public  to properly assess emission reduction strategies of polluting companies and to inform the public and shareholders not only of the climate risks to which these companies are exposed, but the risks they pose for the  whole planet.  The climate crisis adversely impacts all people, particularly vulnerable communities, young people and those with existing compromised health conditions. The public needs to know how companies plan to reduce their GHG emissions, in order to hold them accountable when they fail to do so,” says Nicole Loser, attorney at the CER. 

The Minister’s decision finds that the DEFF’s reasons to refuse the information were inadequate – lacking in substance and detail. Minister Creecy found that “the overall purpose of the administration of justice requires the disclosure of the anticipated projected emissions and the data relating to anticipated and actual emission reductions”, and that she is “satisfied that public interest outweighs any harm that releasing this information may have”. In other words, the redaction of the anticipated and actual GHG emissions is unjustifiable and against the public interest.

“The full access to this information will foster and contribute towards transparency and accountability which is owed to the public more so in matters pertaining to the environment,” says Minister Creecy’s decision.

The Minister, however, refused to make the activity data (namely, production and usage rates – information with operational details of the facilities) available, stating that this information could be justifiably withheld on the basis that its disclosure could weaken competitive advantage of the relevant companies – a decision which CER disputes.

It appears from the Minister’s decision that only 4 of the 16 companies requested by the Minister to make submissions on the CER’s appeal, did so by the March 2020 deadline. Sasol Ltd and Sappi Ltd had no objection to the redacted information being disclosed, whereas Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd and Seriti Resources Holdings (Pty) Ltd objected to the disclosure of the GHG emission data.

Access to information is fundamental to the realisation of our environmental rights, in facilitating peoples’ ability to make informed decisions about their lives, and to hold polluting companies accountable. The CER and its partners are heartened by this decision by Minister Creecy at a time when, more than ever, transparency is integral to inform the decisive climate action South Africa needs to take to limit our exposure to the worst climate change impacts.

END

NOTES TO EDITOR

CONTACT:

The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) is a non-profit organisation of activist lawyers who help communities and civil society organisations in South Africa realise our Constitutional right to a healthy environment by advocating and litigating for environmental justice.

Our Full Disclosure series of reports assesses the public disclosures of listed South African companies with significant environmental and climate impacts. Full Disclosure 5 highlights the importance of disclosing strategies to mitigate climate risks for investors, banks and communities.

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Section 24of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996

Everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that prevent pollution and ecological degradation; promote conservation; and secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.

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