Imagine this: You’re walking down the street, breathing in the fresh air. But what you don’t see is the invisible cloud of toxic pollutants that’s following you. This cloud is made up of the exhaust fumes from cars, trucks, buses, and other vehicles that run on fossil fuels. Using fossil fuels for energy takes a devastating toll on humanity and the environment, from air and water pollution, to the existential threat of the climate crisis.
We stand at a crossroads.
On one path lies a future of toxic fumes, climate catastrophe, and a planet in peril. On the other path lies a future of clean air, a healthy planet, and a harmonious coexistence with nature.
The choice is ours.
In 2013, Ghanaian environmental activist Chibeze Ezekiel learned that the government was planning to build a massive 700MW coal power plant and shipping port in Aboano, a coastal fishing community in Ekumfi district. Ezekiel knew that this would pollute the air and water, destroy the fishing industry, and threaten the health of Ghanaians. So, he launched a four-year campaign to stop the project.
Coal is a fossil fuel that is widely used for power generation. However, it is also the world’s most polluting and unsustainable form of power generation. From its extraction to its combustion, coal releases a toxic cocktail of contaminants into the air, water, and land. But the damage caused by coal doesn’t stop there. When coal is burned, it releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants into the atmosphere, trapping heat, warming the planet, contributing to air pollution and the climate crisis. Coal pollution can lead to a variety of health problems, including breathing difficulties, heart disease, cancer, neurological damage, and other serious environmental and health consequences, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The environmental and public health costs of coal are staggering.
Ezekiel travelled to communities across the country, educating people about the dangers of coal and the benefits of renewable energy. He also organized protests and social media campaigns to pressure the government to change its plans. In 2016, Ezekiel’s campaign was successful. The government announced that the coal power plant would not be built. Ezekiel’s victory was a major setback for the coal industry and a victory for the people of Ghana, who are now on a path to a clean energy future.
In 2020, Ezekiel was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for Africa, also known as the ‘Green Nobel‘ for his work to stop the construction of a coal power plant in Ghana. Chibeze’s win placed him in the company of other distinguished African recipients, such as Wangari Maathai, the renowned Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist; Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer who fought for environmental justice and human rights; and South African activists Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid.
Ezekiel is a force to be reckoned with in the fight for a cleaner, more sustainable future. He harnesses the power of youth to make a difference through his tireless work with the Strategic Youth Network for Development, which leads groundbreaking campaign programmes in Ghana and across Africa.
allAfrica’s Melody Chironda interviewed Chibeze Ezekiel about the most pressing environmental challenges facing Africa today.
In his own words, Ezekiel said that he first became concerned about coal power plants in Ghana in 2013 when he saw a news bulletin about a proposed plant. He and his organization, 350 Ghana Reducing Our Carbon, started tracking the conversation in Accra.
In December 2015, the Volta River Authority (VRA), the agency responsible for construction, posted multiple scoping reports on the coal plant for public response. Concerns from the community were then submitted to the VRA as part of the environmental impact assessment process. This is when the idea of building a coal plant in Ghana first came to the national level.
In 2016, the government issued a scoping notice calling for input from individuals and communities on the proposed plant. This is when Ezekiel and his organization launched their campaign to stop the coal plant. Their campaign was successful, and the plan to build the coal plant was ultimately cancelled.
When asked about major milestones and challenges in his campaign, Ezekiel said that he would not say that they encountered major challenges because of their approach to campaigning.
They used a “submarine approach”, which meant that they went into the communities where the coal plant was proposed and spent three or four days with the community members, including the chiefs, fishermen, women’s groups, and religious leaders. They answered their questions and provided them with information about the coal plant so that they could make an informed decision. Ezekiel said that they were able to build rapport with the community members and get their support for their campaign. Some of the community members were initially not convinced, but they were able to open up and share their fears and concerns.
After meeting with the community members, he engaged with broader non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) to build momentum for their campaign. They also held press conferences and video campaigns to reach a wider audience.
“And so in that regard, there was not just a small group of young people campaigning but had a number of people from NGOs and communities also backing our campaign,” he said.
Ezekiel said that they were not just fighting against the coal plant, but they were also providing an alternative. ” We proposed alternative energy sources to coal, arguing that renewable energy is far superior. The government’s two main reasons for supporting coal were it’s cheap to generate power using coal and its potential to create jobs for young people,” he said.
However, Ezekiel argued that these arguments are not valid when you consider the external costs of coal, such as air pollution and water contamination, adding that coal power plants emit pollutants into the air, which can lead to respiratory diseases and lung cancer, the government argued that the health costs of these diseases were offset by the revenue generated from coal taxes. Additionally, coal ash waste is often discharged into water bodies, which can contaminate drinking water and lead to sanitation problems. In Ghana and other African countries, where many people rely on these water bodies for basic needs such as washing, cooking, and cleaning, this is a major concern.
Ezekiel argued that renewable energy promises more jobs than coal because it requires a wider range of skills to build and maintain renewable energy systems. For example, renewable energy jobs include installing solar panels, manufacturing wind turbines, and developing new renewable energy technologies. He added that they were able to overcome the challenges they faced by being productive and constructive in their engagement with the government and the public. They also provided evidence to support their claims and were willing to have difficult conversations.
Campaign success highlights global momentum for clean energy
“We can use Ghana as a clear example of a country transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy,” Ezekiel said. “In 2015, Ghana experienced a severe power shortage, known as “dumsor” This was due to a combination of factors, including poor infrastructure and a lack of investment in renewable energy.”
To address the power shortage, the government built several thermal power plants that convert heat energy into electrical energy by using oil and gas. These plants have helped to restore power generation, but they are not sustainable in the long term.
Ezekiel added that Ghana is exploring natural gas power plants as a relatively cleaner and more abundant alternative to oil and coal. It is also investing in renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and create new jobs.
“Ghana’s transition to clean energy is a clear case of economic transition. By investing in renewable energy, Ghana can reduce its reliance on imported fossil fuels and create new jobs in the renewable energy sector,” he said.
Can we realistically move away from fossil fuels? Ezekiel says that it is not possible to completely eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, as some countries have abundant reserves and will continue to use them for power generation and export. However, we can significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by shifting more attention to clean energy sources.
Are the voices of people being heard?
Yes,” he said. “In October 2016, the Minister of Environment publicly announced at a press conference that Ghana would not be building a coal plant. He said that we cannot sign the Paris Agreement on climate change and then build a coal plant. So the government did listen to our concerns.”
“In that context, I can say that it is possible for the government to listen and adjust accordingly,” Ezekiel added.
Africa Climate Summit Falls Short of Expectations
“Many of us are not happy with the outcome of the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi,” he said. “We saw too much influence from the fossil fuel industry, which tried to set the agenda for the conversation. Most of the events focused on carbon credits and carbon markets, which are driven by industry players.”
“The summit did not reflect Africa’s own agenda… which is quite pathetic,” Ezekiel said.
“We were hoping to see more discussion about adaptation to climate change, especially for vulnerable communities. We also wanted to see more emphasis on agroecology and organic farming. One of the most concerning aspects of the summit was the declaration. There was an initial declaration, but some countries, such as South Africa and Nigeria, contested some of its content. This suggests that there was no consensus among African countries on the issues.”
“We believe that this lack of consensus is largely due to the influence of the fossil fuel industry and the West. Africa knows its own problems and what it needs to do to adapt to climate change. So why is it so difficult for us to agree on a common position?”
“The final outcome of the summit is problematic because it is unclear what we have agreed to. There is still division among African countries, and we are not sure if we can implement the summit’s goals,” he said.
African Leaders Must Speak with One Voice at COP28
“I think our African leaders should negotiate as a bloc at the upcoming climate summit, instead of as individual countries,” he said. “We face the same climate challenges, so we should work together to find solutions.”
“We don’t want to see or witness what has been the case in other summits, where African leaders go and negotiate as individual countries. We need to go and negotiate as a bloc, as Africa, because we are facing common issues that are affecting us as far as climate change is concerned.”
Ezekiel added: “African leaders must place emphasis on Africa’s opportunities, as a top priority when it comes to the agenda for opportunities in the climate crisis, push for momentum on the global goal for adaptation, demand a drastic increase in adaptation funds, and increase investments in cleaner and better forms of energy generation. By working together, African leaders can amplify their voices and ensure that their needs are met in the fight against climate change.”
Environmental Champion’s Message to the Global Community
Ezekiel’s message to the global community is that our love of nature is a universal truth. We feel refreshed and alive in natural places, such as the seaside, the beach, or the forest. This is why we must unite to protect our planet.
“In essence, we need a healthy environment to survive as humans,” he said. “Even rich people, who can afford to live anywhere, often choose to live near the sea or in forests. They create natural environments in their homes, planting trees and flowers, and caring for animals. This shows that everyone enjoys nature and benefits from it.”
Ezekiel said that as we develop and industrialize, we must be mindful of our impact on the environment. If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves. We must see the environment not only as a source of profits but also as a place where we can live healthy and fulfilling lives. We must protect the environment for this generation and for generations to come.
“There is no turning back. We must keep fighting for climate justice,” he said. “The coal campaign in Ghana is a case study of how people can fight against the government and win. By being consistent and sticking to our demands, we were able to force the government to listen to us and develop a clean energy plan. This gives me hope that we can achieve our goals in other countries as well. If we are consistent and united, we can overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.”
“To leaders and businesses, I say this: listen to the people. We are the ones who will be most affected by the climate crisis. We are the ones who are demanding change,” he said. “If you want to survive on this planet, you need to start investing in clean energy and sustainable practices. The people will not tolerate business as usual any longer.”
Hopes for the Future of Climate Action in Africa?
Ezekiel hopes to see more young climate activists who provide concrete solutions and use their skills to bring about economic transformation.
“We must not forget that Africa is a young continent. It is important to harness the skills, energy, and strength of young people to bring about the kind of change we need in our environment. I see more young people pushing the agenda and becoming the leaders we need to create the kind of future we want,” he said.
In closing, Ezekiel urges delegates to give space to young people to showcase their contributions in the push for climate action. Just as delegates are responsible for making decisions, they must also recognize the value of young people’s ideas and solutions.