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Coal power kills thousands — phase it out

24 April 2023 at 1:27 pm

This article was first published in the Business Day

We have seen a flurry of excitement in recent weeks about the proposed reopening of some old coal power stations to help ease load-shedding. This is a terrible idea for many reasons, not the least the problem of throwing good money after bad when there are viable, sustainable and cheaper alternatives  in the form of variable, distributable renewable energy with storage and peaking support.

But there is also a critical moral argument against such a backward step that  compels us to accelerate the transition with all the support we need to provide to workers, communities and small businesses to make the transition just.

Every year, air pollution from our coal power stations kills thousands of people on the Mpumalanga highveld; in the adjacent densely populated areas of Ekurhuleni, Tshwane and Johannesburg; in the Waterberg in Limpopo where the Medupi and Matimba power stations are sited; and in the Vaal Triangle.

If you live, work or travel through these areas, or if you fly over in a plane, you can see this pollution. If you are forced to breathe this air you will know what the pollution feels like in your lungs. Many people with the health burden of air pollution are often unaware of the connection between their and their families’ persistent ill health and the air pollution from coal power stations and other fossil fuel facilities.

Eskom’s coal power stations are not the only source, but they are the primary cause of the poor air quality in the airsheds of these stations, where concentrations of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides often exceed health-based ambient air quality standards. Many power stations cannot meet all of the weak 2015 minimum emission standards for air pollution. Eskom admits it cannot meet new plant standards in 2025 without significant investment in pollution abatement, which it cannot afford.

Air pollution has serious implications for people’s health. It causes heart attacks; cancer of the lung, trachea and bronchus; type two diabetes and strokes; chronic constructive pulmonary disease and lower respiratory tract infections. In 2017, it was estimated in an independent expert study that air pollution from Eskom’s coal power stations alone causes more than 94,000 cases of asthma symptom days in children; more than 9,500 cases of bronchitis in children and almost 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis in adults, 2, 400 hospital admissions and 1-million lost working days a year.

Our coal power stations cannot comply with the law or provide us with reliable electricity. They also prematurely kill people who live and work in the airsheds of the power stations. They make thousands of people ill, including children, and trap them in a cycle of poverty. Members of communities on the highveld often report that they cannot get jobs in local industries because they fail health tests.

The poor air quality from burning coal and other fossil fuels also violates constitutional rights. In 2022, the high court in Pretoria held that toxic highveld air and the poor health and deaths caused by this pollution, is a violation of the constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing.

If this human rights violation continues, or is worsened by, for instance, extending the life of some of the polluting power stations, there will undoubtedly be further court action, possibly including class actions for harm suffered by people living in our priority areas.

People’s health?

What do our decisions about phasing out coal and other fossil fuels mean for people’s health? At present concentrations, it is projected that there will be more than 800,000 avoidable deaths attributable to air pollution from now to 2050.

If we implement a straight-line decrease of the use of fossil fuels for industrial energy and of solid fuels for household energy to zero by 2050, a projected half of these deaths — more than 400,000 — will be avoided.

In an accelerated scenario of a phasing out of these combustion emissions by 2040 it is projected that more than 150,000 deaths will be avoided. That is a projected total of 550,000 deaths avoided by exiting coal and other fossil fuels by 2040.

These numbers should make us lie awake at night. Air pollution from coal and other fossil fuels is an acute public health crisis in SA. We are knowingly causing harm to the lives, health and development prospects of hundreds of thousands of people, including children — some even before they are born.

One of the major benefits of a largely renewable electricity system, on the other hand, is significantly cleaner air on the highveld and other priority areas. This means increased life expectancy, better health, greater productivity and wellbeing, and the realisation of constitutional rights.

As a country we owe a debt of restorative justice to the people who have suffered and continue to suffer the health consequences of our reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. This should be a major consideration in the design and prioritisation of interventions in the just transition.

The grave health cost of the use of coal and other fossil fuels is a compelling reason not to countenance expanding the polluting coal fleet, and to transition instead to a largely renewable electricity system as soon as possible.

• Fourie, outgoing executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights, is a member of the Presidential Climate Commission.