WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
Ghana has yet to welcome a coal plant. It came closer a few years ago, but Goldman Prize winner Chibeze Ezekiel wasn’t going to let that happen. In this edition of The Frontline, Ezekiel shares his story and work around environmental advocacy in Ghana.
In Ghana, more than a million households remain without power. Much of the African nation runs on hydroelectric power, but damming rivers won’t meet demand. So, uh, how about some coal?
That was the thinking behind a coal-fired power plant proposed near the southeastern coast of Ghana in 2013. With the climate crisis in full swing, though, people weren’t too excited about one of the world’s dirtiest fuels joining the grid. That’s when Chibeze Ezekiel stepped in.
Welcome to The Frontline, where you’ll hear from Ezekiel, the man who helped stop this project. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. You’ll get to learn about a few Goldman Prize winners this week. Ezekiel, 41, didn’t always care so deeply about the climate crisis. Now, it’s become the focus of his work, guiding his organizing.
When you live in the grips of poverty, a job may sound more urgent than the health of the surrounding ecosystem. Ezekiel understands this reality well. When he began informing communities about the 700-megawatt coal plant, he made sure to talk to them about the pollution that would result, the potential for mercury contamination, and its gigantic threat to the Ekumfi district’s future.
Most importantly, however, he arrived with an open ear. He spent about four days in the district, making sure to listen to the community’s concerns.
“Fortunately for us, the people in the community themselves were not fully supportive of the project because they had their own reservations, but they had no clue or idea of who to talk to,” Ezekiel told me over Zoom.
With community members opposing the project, Ezekiel had to then gain support from allies in the nonprofit sector and, eventually, the government itself. If government officials didn’t sign on, then the effort would’ve become that much more difficult.
“I keep asking myself: What can I do as a person to help halt, if not stop, climate change completely? That’s why I’ve put it upon myself to raise an army of young people. I can only do what I can, but if I raise an army, we can do more.”
These days—at least in the U.S.—environmental advocates often find themselves demanding a seat at the table, staging direct nonviolent actions to gain attention from leaders in Congress or the White House. Ezekiel didn’t have to do any of that in Ghana.
“We used all the appropriate structures that [allowed] us to share our concern,” he says.
Once he and his team with 350 Ghana Reducing Our Carbon made their opposition public, the lead agency on the project invited them in for a meeting. Advocates and the government could agree on one thing: The people of Ghana need energy. The initial disagreement was with how.
In that meeting, organizers didn’t come armed with only complaints about coal; they came with alternatives.
Now, Ghana is on track to adopt renewable energy. In 2019, the government unveiled its $5.6 billion Renewable Energy Master Plan. Its goal is to create 220,000 jobs by 2030 in the renewable energy sector by investing in solar, wind, and hydro. The hope is to also create decentralized solar grids to make sure rural residents aren’t left out, either.
Ghana has the rare luxury of not being reliant on fossil fuels. However, that doesn’t mean that can’t change. Ezekiel’s award-winning work helped stop one coal plant (which would’ve been the country’s first). He knows battles remain ahead. That’s why he’s been working with youth environmentalists for the past three years. Passing on his tools and knowledge may help keep his country safe from a heating world.
“I keep asking myself: What can I do as a person to help halt, if not stop, climate change completely?” Ezekiel says. “That’s why I’ve put it upon myself to raise an army of young people. I can only do what I can, but if I raise an army, we can do more.”