Written by Eve Driver
UPDATE: Since the writing of this piece, we learned that ICBC pulled out of the Lamu coal-fired power project.
When the plan to build a coal plant in Lamu was first introduced, it was part of a broader conversation on Kenya: its economic development, infrastructure, and future as a “newly industrializing, middle-income country,” to use the language of the national Vision 2030 agenda that initiated the project.
When the plan was deferred, however, it became part of a conversation about global climate justice.
While coal plants degrade local air quality and ecosystems, the politics of coal has never been merely local. In the case of Lamu, shortly after the project was announced, an international cohort of investors, lawyers, and activists united in support of the local opposition, offering their funding and expertise.
The project’s investors, like the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), failed to see this formidable collaboration coming — ultimately wasting their time and arguably, losing their money.
One of these investors was the United States-based energy company General Electric (GE). The company had committed to financing part of the plant’s construction but received pushback from its shareholders when they learned of the project’s perceived risks.
“We generally have our eyes and ears open for companies that are doing what we think is risky from a climate and fossil fuel perspective,” explained Lila Holzman of As You Sow, a US-based shareholder advocacy organization.
“When the investor community became aware of the coal project in Kenya, we decided to raise awareness and get GE’s attention.”
As You Sow, an American corporate accountability organisation, partnered with U.K.-based Proxy Impact and wrote a letter to investors, whose signatories collectively held almost $713 billion worth of assets under management.
The letter called for GE to reconsider its investment in the Lamu coal plant. When the company’s response failed to address the issues that had been raised, they filed a shareholder resolution asking for more disclosures on how the company makes decisions about risk.
“From that point on, our engagement with GE has been productive,” Holzman says.
GE later pulled out from the Lamu project and stated that it was in a transition period with respect to coal. It would not pursue any new coal contracts, and the continuation of existing ones would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Since 2018, this type of shareholder pressure in response to coal investments has only mounted. As the International Energy Agency recently urged the world to move away from fossil fuels by 2025, investors are increasingly attuned to the “transition risk” associated with a shift to clean energy: as fossil fuels get phased out, assets will be stranded and devalued.
“Now more than ever, there’s a lot of scrutiny of these kinds of projects and how little sense they make,” Holzman continued.
Meanwhile, as investors grew more concerned, international organizations with expertise in leading social movements collaborated and stood together in solidarity with the Lamu community.
“We draw our strength from being a global movement and having access to various tools and resources that we share,” explained Amos Wemanya of Greenpeace Kenya, who got involved in the opposition to the coal plant shortly after the project was proposed.
“In particular, we have a lot of experience with creative nonviolent direct action.”
In June 2019, Greenpeace Kenya helped to organize a peaceful protest at the parliament building as well as the Chinese Embassy, due to ICBC’s pivotal role in funding the project.
“The community in Lamu had written to the Chinese Embassy separately many times but they were not getting a response. They even went a step further and translated the letter into Mandarin,” Wemanya explained. “But the protest got the Chinese authorities to finally respond.”
From there, they kept the pressure up.
“The Chinese Ambassador replied that the reason they were moving forward with the project was that the people of Kenya wanted it, and if we could demonstrate that the people of Kenya don’t want it, they might reconsider,” Wemanya continued.
“So we organized a petition […] and we showed that actually, the people don’t want it—it’s just a few politicians who would benefit at the expense of the majority,” he went on to say. The petition eventually earned 15,000 signatories.
Building such a large movement requires time, funding, and expertise, even when the local sentiment is as clear as it was in Lamu.
With global activist organizations prepared to jump in, however, it became possible to mobilize enormous political opposition to the project. This is a bad sign for investors.
“From an investor standpoint, we want to see our companies maintain their social license to operate,” continues Holzman. “That’s another risk that’s worth mentioning: a company’s ability to actually function and operate depends on the community’s response. And if the community is going to be fighting you every step of the way, that’s a serious risk.”
In some cases, a community’s stance on coal depends on its knowledge of the impacts of living near a plant.
Research and education was another area in which international collaborations paid off. “Greenpeace, back in 2017, conducted a study on air pollution impacts of the proposed Lamu coal power plant. It was based on other plants of a similar nature elsewhere in the world. It was shared with the [local] movement and has helped a lot.”
But in the end, the coal plant’s progress was stymied in the courts, where an international team of lawyers and experts testified against the project’s legality.
Natural Justice, a pan-African legal team with a presence in South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Madagascar, Botswana and Guinea, led the effort. The team had experience defending communities impacted by similar infrastructure projects around the continent, such as mining in Guinea and power plants in South Africa.
“We are an environmental justice organization and we focus on helping communities know and shape the law,” says Mark Odaga, one of the lead attorneys on the case. “And there was a big gap between what the law requires and what actually happened.”
The Natural Justice team was eventually able to win the case. The National Environment Tribunal ruled that the project’s license had not been issued following the proper protocols for public participation and climate impact assessments.
The ruling has been moved to the appeals court, where it still stands a chance of being reversed. But the wide array of international support for the Lamu community is not going away anytime soon.
“For a period of time [the government] has not continued to develop the coal plant because the court stopped it, but we have seen that these international groups have remained supportive,” says Isaac Oindo, leader of the Kenya chapter of 350.org, another global climate organization focused on grassroots organizing against fossil fuels.
Should the project resume, these groups are poised to continue deploying their collective resources to resume the fight for what they believe is in the best interests of the people of Lamu, of Kenya, and more broadly, the world.
About the author
Eve Driver, United States/Kenya
Eve is a writer living in Nairobi. She grew up in the northeastern United States and has had stints in Buenos Aires and Cape Town, where she also worked as a writer and researcher. In addition to her work as a journalist, Eve has worked as a fossil fuel divestment activist, a research assistant to an anthropologist, a criminal investigator for a public defender, and a campaign manager for an Argentine mayoral candidate.
She studied the history and culture(s) of environmentalism at Harvard University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2020. Her research on media coverage of Cape Town’s “Day Zero” water crisis won the Undergraduate Essay Prize from the Science, Technology and Society department at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
This story was made possible through the support of Climate Tracker.