In their quest to boost production and access to electricity, governments are not always comfortable in assessingthe environmental impacts of their energy policy decisions. A good example is that of coal fired power plants. Although supporters claim that coal is the “cleanest least costly option”, many wonder why Africa should construct such projects when coal is being phased out in large parts of the world.
Kenya is interesting in this context as there is considerable political interest in pursuing green energy initiatives such as the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, the largest wind power farm in Africa. But the government has also pursued more traditional fossil fuel powered projects such as East Africa’s first coal-fired plant adjacent to the Lamu Archipelago. The 1 050MW Lamu Coal Power Station is estimated to cost $2 billion, financed mainly through a credit agreement with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Construction, planned to begin in September 2015, was expected to be complete in less than three years.
Supporters of the project, including the Kenyan and Chinese governments have long promoted the idea of “clean coal”. Ever since the initial reports of the project emerged, however, there have been a wave of protests by local populations and environmental activists. The protesters have highlighted concerns over revenue sharing arrangements and the threat of increased air pollution, endangered marine species, destruction of a Unesco World Heritage Site and a 700 percent increase of Kenya’s annual emissions of greenhouse gases. Local organisations such as Save Lamu and their allies have organized numerous protests with slogans proclaiming that “Clean coal is a lie,” and “Don’t be fooled by fossil fool. Coal is not cool,” urging the government to put the lives of “Kenyans before coal”. Some scholars also questioned the impartiality and credibility of the Environment and Social Impact Assessment (Esia) study that was conducted before the project was approved by the National Environment Management Authority (Nema).
With legal representation from the Katiba Institute, Save Lamu argued that Nema had violated the Constitution and the Environmental Management and Coordination Act in issuing the license to the consortium behind the project. Kenya’s National Environmental Tribunal decided in June 2019 to stop the project, citing environmental concerns and a failure to adequately consult the public. The Tribunal also pointed to several flaws and missing elements in the Esia study, including the extent of pollution that would result from coal, dust and ash produced by the plant and the extent to which these would affect humans, plants, animals and marine life. Although activists fear that construction activities will once again resume in the near future, the legal fight has showcased the strong demand by local populations that leaders should prioritize renewable energy rather than coal power.