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ENVIRONMENTAL CONSERVATION OR ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT?

A case against coal exploitation in Kenya.

The global order was and is still being shaped by fossil fuels. The developed north has attributed its success to exploitation of coal and of course…the theft and plunder of our resources it perpetrated during colonization.

Despite the success, the world has come to an unfortunate reality: the use and exploitation fossil fuels has deleterious effects on the environment. Fossil fuels such as coal have adverse effects on the environment and have been linked to global warming and rise in sea levels. This realization has prompted world leaders to reevaluate their position on fossil fuels and have adopted treaties, declarations and agreements to combat climate change. The latest being the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement.

On 12 December 2015, state parties signatory to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change adopted the Paris Agreement on climate change. They all pledged to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change. This was to be done in among many others reducing energy related carbon emissions by more than 70% by 2050. This goal was to be realized by deploying renewable forms of energy such as wind, solar and improving on energy efficiency. Kenya ratified this convention in 2017.

However, before the coming to force of this convention, the country had discovered huge deposits of coal and there were plans to construct a coal fired plant in Lamu.

The Lamu coal fired plant.

The project is to inject 1050 MW of power into the national grid. Given this discovery, Kenya felt it was on the right path to realize economic development. Nonetheless, the project has been mired with a lot of controversies and criticisms such as the adverse effects of coal on the environment, health concerns, land acquisition problems and derogation from international obligations. Research has proven that coal contributes to global warming due to air pollution.

Air pollution.
Photo by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels

Coal dust has also been known to cause severe respiratory effects for miners and communities who live around the mine. Given this, most countries have shied away from coal mining and use. Despite the negative effects of coal, developing countries such as Kenya have always had conflicts with developed nations about exploitation of resources such as coal versus observing environmental obligations.

The conflict between developing and developed nations

Developed nations have attributed their economic success to the exploitation of fossil fuels. They have also been marked as the greatest contributors to global warming. Therefore, the imposition of standards and policies has been seen as hypocritical and an affront to the sovereignty of developing nations. Developing nations have argued that since they have sovereignty over natural resources, they should be left to pursue their economic affairs based on local conditions without external interference. In their view, the right to promote development is a national undertaking and not an international one and thus, no constraints such as imposition of standards should impede them in their exercise of the right to development. To them, the requirement to protect the environment is an impediment to national development. In short, their argument is that they should be left to determine their own policies without external interference.

Moreover, developing nations have argued that the developed north’s success is as a result of exploitation of fossil fuels. The industrial revolution was as a result of coal. So they see the imposition as hypocritical. Developing nations have also argued that that the developed north is the greatest contributor to environmental degradation. Therefore, instead of these unilateral impositions, they should pay for the harm on the environment. To them, since colonization and the period after independence, laws were crafted in favor of the colonizers. As a result, this enabled them to perpetuate the theft and plunder of resources and contribute to environmental degradation.

Notwithstanding their assertions, research has proven that fossil fuels contribute to environmental degradation. The argument that, ‘since you did, we can also do,‘ is null and ignorant of the existing conditions. The rise in sea levels coupled with the increase in global temperatures is as a result of exploitation of fossil fuels. Given this realization, the next question is how should a state promote the right to development or how can a state promote economic development while protecting the environment? This brings us to the concept of sustainable development.

Is it the right to development or to sustainable development?


Every state has the obligation to promote the right to development of its peoples. The right cannot be realized at once, but is to be progressively realized. This means taking positive steps towards the realization of that right. As states move towards the realization of that right, they ought to ensure that other rights are respected. And this can be done by promoting sustainable development. That is, development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet its needs.

This principle epitomizes human rights considerations of fairness, equity and dignity while ensuring that environment is sustainably exploited. The coal fired power plant does not promote this. Rather, the exploitation and use of coal violates the principles envisaged therein. The violationcomes through the numerous violations of human rights such as right to health, water, environment among others.

Basically, the exploitation of coal goes against the letter and spirit of the Constitution and is an assault to each and every environmental treaty ratified by Kenya. The pursuit of economic development should take into consideration environmental obligations. And given that coal has been tried and tested and the negative effects seen, it doesn’t make sense going down that road again. Given this revelations, the question is, is there an alternative?

Is there an alternative?

First it is important to remember that this plant is producing 1050 MW of power. And according to the Energy Regulatory Commission, Kenya has the capacity to produce 1000 MW of wind energy. In addition, United Nations Environmental Program estimates that Kenya has the potential to produce 3000 MW of wind energy if carefully harnessed. Given that coal is nonrenewable and will run out after some time, it is imperative that the government adopts wind as it is cleaner, more efficient and renewable.

Moreover, major economies and energy companies in the world are shying away from fossil fuels. Eon energy and Statoil, some of the biggest oil companies in the world, have teamed up and are moving towards green energy. They have come up with the concept of floating wind mills in the ocean. The concept has been deployed in Scotland.

The construction of the plant ignores obvious effects of coal on the environment. Further, the motives and the approval processes of the project are suspicious. They are meant to help a few individuals. In addition, one of the principles that is envisaged in observance of treaties is good faith. This project ignores this. Further, the constitution obligates the government to ensure the sustainable exploitation and use of natural resources, this project defeats that purpose. And the pulling out of the Paris agreement, together with the rollback of coal in the USA should not be used as a justification. Since the President has been faulted by his own administration and the Environmental Protection Agency for pulling out.

Therefore, it is upon the government to abide by international treaties and ensure that the environment is used for the benefit of the present and future generations. Coal exploration and exploitation does not guarantee this.

2 Comments

  1. Trevor Omondi Trevor Omondi

    This is a very interesting area counsel. Also, very well articulated. Yes…we have ratified the UNFCCC with its protocols which advocate for climate mitigation and adaptation. This situation can be approached in two ways by Kenya. Either by drawing it’s guns or by playing good.
    Through the former, it can chose to wait until the lapse of 3 years until it pulls out of the Paris Agreement after which it can then pursue its economic interests in Lamu.
    Through the former, it can chose to yes pursue its interest but in environmental friendly ways as per the environmental canons e.g. Polluter Pays Principle. This will however not be of much help as the coal harvesting has severe impacts.
    Kenya prides itself to harnessing 85% of its green energy. Much should remain focused on the renewable energy and looking for other alternative sources. My two vents.

    • Thank you Trevor for your feedback on this issue. Indeed it was a pleasure writing this piece.

      I agree with you that pulling out of The Paris Agreement and pursuing economic development will allow the country to pursue it’s economic interests. And through canons such as polluter pays we can realize economic development. Nonetheless, coal has negative effects and playing it safe won’t help. Despite the numerous environmental and mining regulations, in Kenya the standards therein may not be followed.
      You will hear stories of reports being ignored and mining & health inspectors being bribed.
      I agree with you that we should pursue green energy and abide by our commitments to it.

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