South Africa’s First Climate Change Court Case: Verdict and Significance

On the 8th of March, 2017, South Africa bore witness to its first-ever court case concerning climate change when Earthlife Africa (ELA) challenged the construction of a new coal-fuelled power station on the basis that the climate change impacts of the proposed power station were not properly considered. Although the matter was only heard at the high court level, the case has potentially set a crucial precedent within the field of environmental law.

The Verdict:

During the course of this judgement, the court reiterated the need for environmental due diligence as well as recognising the duty upon the country to combat climate change, even in the face of the country’s current energy crisis.

Consequently, the court ruled that not only is there an obligation on the state to assess the effect of climate change on the environment, but that this climate change impact assessment report must be made prior to the authorisation of any energy project.


Aside from the fact that this judgement is a fantastic example of just how effective a group of active citizens can be, it also signifies the growing importance and power of environmental research.

The court’s decision effectively serves to entrench the place of environmental research in the field of energy, ruling that the state, pending any possible appeal of the decision, is obligated to factor in the potential impact of a project on the climate. A consequence of this decision will be seen in the demand for environmental researchers, especially given the state’s current plan to drastically increase the country’s energy-producing capacity.

This specific judgment is extremely important in the sense that it clarifies the judiciary’s position on climate change and also adds teeth to the environmental provisions contained in the National Environmental Management Act. However, it is also important to remember that this precedent is currently only binding in Gauteng and even then can be overturned by a full bench decision within the same jurisdiction or a decision by the SCA or Constitutional Court. So, although this case represents an important step forward for those in the environmental field, there is still some way to go yet.

A postgraduate degree at Vaal University of Technology represents the ideal opportunity to enter the fields of environmental research and sustainability. Contact VUT for details on the numerous postgraduate programs offered by this New Generation University.