Kenya’s legislative and policy documents are explicit in their recognition of the importance of coal as a source of energy in Kenya and one of the key options for helping meet the country’s energy needs. This is despite the international contestations over the continued reliance on coal despite its negative environmental effects.
This is captured in the statement that coal is a dirty source of energy. Supporters of coal on the other hand argue that it is possible to have clean coal.
This is the background against which the Lamu Coal Plant must be viewed. Following the issuance of an environmental impact assessment licence by the National Environment Management Authority, a coal power plant in Lamu was to be operationalised.
However, the plant has seen controversies throughout its life. Opposed by both residents of Lamu and civil society, the debate was settled, at least for the time being by the National Environmental Tribunal, which in a decision delivered on June 26, 2019 cancelled the licence by Nema to AMU Power Company Limited to establish and operate the plant.
Kenya has over the last few years been working on a strategy and process to increase its energy production capacity to meet the energy needs not just for present uses but also anticipated demand in the journey to increased industrialisation. It has sought to expand its energy options to include not just coal but also nuclear sources.
These efforts while commendable have had to grapple with the environmental impacts of some energy sources. Coal production has met huge opposition arising from the fact that several countries are shifting from reliance on it due to its effects on climate change.
The adoption of the Paris Accord expressly spoke about the need to transit to a low carbon economy. Coal with its recognised contribution to climate change is consequently not an option that helps in the strides to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Instead it has the potential of exacerbating climate change.
It is important that Kenya’s policy choices reflect its long-term interests and priorities. To have proposed the establishment of the plant at around the same time that we were agreeing to several national action in fulfillment of obligations under the Paris Accord speaks to our real interests and strategic focus as a country.
As the tribunal pointed out in its decision, the reason why there is an elaborate decision making process under the country’s environmental laws is to ensure that there is adequate socialisation of the people likely to be affected by a monumental decision such as establishment of a coal plant. Their views and inputs will enable decision makers to undertake a proper balancing act, a key requirement not just of the country’s constitution but international commitments on sustainable development.
There is also the question of the imperatives of a circular economy. Kenya is committed to the transition to a circular economy, whose rationale is to create a production and consumption system that recognises the interconnectedness of the environment and that focuses on restoration and regeneration.
An essential component of such an economy is the preference of renewable energy. To accept that international focus to move away from a linear economy that operates on the basis of resource abundance and is oblivious to the need to address management waste generated from human activities, while at the same time encouraging projects which seem at variance with that recognition is to raise questions on the state’s commitment to a circular economy path.
The country has huge potential for renewable energy including geothermal, wind and solar. It is important that policy and financial focus targets enhancing the harnessing of this potential and translating into reality. This will ensure that the country meets its energy needs while at the same ensuring environmental sustainability.