South Africa has witnessed climate change litigation challenging project approval. The case of Earthlife Africa Johannesburg v The Minster of Environmental Affairs and Others challenged the EIA process and environmental authorization of coal-fired power plant granted by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). The case was based on the following grounds;

  • Human Rights: Section 24 of the Constitution guarantees the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. Courts have a duty to interpret all legislation to promote the spirit and object of the Bill of Rights. (Section 39(2) Constitution). Thus, interpreting the environmental licencing provisions (such as Section 240 NEMA) in line with the Constitution mandates the prevention of pollution and environmental protection by securing ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources
  • Breach on statutory provisions:
    • Section 2 National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) provides guiding principles in public decision-making, including sustainable development and a general mitigation principle that environmental harm must be avoided, minimised or remedied (Sections 2(3) & (4) NEMA). This provision, coupled with Section 240 (1) NEMA, implies a mandatory pre-requisite i.e., a climate change impact assessment to be conducted before granting an environmental authorization
    • Section 2 National Environment Management: Air Quality Act (NEMAQA)require decisionmakers to consider air quality impacts of projects while Section 39 mandates licensing authority to consider the current and future air pollution from the activity when considering an application for an Atmospheric Emission License (AEL). Furthermore, the authority must apply practicable environmental option to prevent, control, abate or mitigate the pollution.
    • Section 43(1) of NEMAQA acknowledge the curbing of GHG emission and climate change mitigation via the requirements for an AEL. An AEL concluded in terms of Sections 39(b) and (c) of NEMAQA must specify GHG measurements and reporting requirements.
  • International climate change law: Section 233 of the Constitution instructs courts to follow any reasonable interpretation of legislation that is consistent with international law. The international climate change obligations in Articles 3(3) and 4(1)(f) of the UNFCCCas well as the country’s NDC support a conclusion that climate change impacts and mitigation measures must be included as relevant factors during an environmental authorisation (Earthlife case par. 90-91).

When challenging project authorisation on the grounds of a violation of the Bill of Rights and under NEMA, claimants have wide standing. Individuals and associations can file a case on their behalf, on behalf of another person, on behalf of their members, in the public interest and in the interest of protecting the environment (Section 38 Constitution, Section 32(1)NEMA, Earthlife Africa case par. 3).’

Remedies: In the Earthlife Africa case, the court reviewed and set aside the authorisation and remitted back to the licensing authority for reconsideration. Particularly, the court directed the Minister for Environmental Affairs to consider, among others, climate change impact assessment (Earthlife Africa Case par. 126).

For more country specific context and relevant national climate change law see:  

This country report has been produced by Aditi Shetye, C2LI Research Assistant, Iona McEntee, C2LI Senior Research Assistant and Lydia Omuko-Jung, C2LI Legal Analyst. This summary is based on Michelle Barnard, “Climate change and the individual: South African climate change litigation” in F. Sindico and M. Moise Mbengue, Comparative Climate Change Litigation: Beyond the Usual Suspects, Springer, 2021.