6 October 2021 at 11:45 am
New research from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) shows that Eskom is now the largest emitter of health-harming sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the world. These findings stand in stark contrast to the World Health Organisation’s recently updated guidelines on ambient air quality and highlight the fact that unless Eskom complies with domestic air pollution laws or decommissions its older plants, South Africa is unlikely to attain safe air quality, particularly in the Mpumalanga Highveld.
The new expert research and recently strengthened WHO guidelines underscore the vast gulf that the soon-to-be-appointed expert panel on air quality standards in South Africa must try to bridge, if the country is to move from its comparatively weak national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) and status as an air pollution hotspot, to a future in which millions of South Africans no longer have to breathe poisonous air.
Home of the worst SO2 emitting power company in the world
The new research from CREA has found that Eskom emits more SO2 than the entire power sector of the EU and US, or the US and China, combined. The expert analysis concludes that only India’s power sector accounts for more SO2 emissions than Eskom.
The CREA report highlights that these emissions contribute to high levels of ambient air pollution and to air pollution-related deaths in South Africa estimated to be responsible for approximately 2,200 deaths annually according to another 2017 expert study. Most of these deaths are due to SO2 emissions, which form fine particulate matter (PM2.5) once released into the air.
“Most other regions with large power sector air pollutant emissions have made rapid progress in reducing emissions, Eskom has been stuck in place, lobbying against even the most rudimentary requirements to curb its SO2 pollution. As a result, the company has now become the worst SO2 emitting power company in the world,” explains Lauri Myllyvirta, Lead Analyst at CREA.
“Eskom’s sulfur dioxide emissions in 2019 exceeded those from the power sectors from each of the world’s three largest economies. Eskom’s emissions are shown for FY 2019–2020.”
The other global pandemic: air pollution
The CREA research on Eskom comes in the wake of the WHO tightening its health-based global air quality guidelines. These are recommended exposure limits to harmful air pollutants, including SO2.
The WHO guidelines for the regulation of air pollutants were last updated 16 years ago in 2005. Since then air pollution has been recognised as the biggest environmental threat to human health, especially as it has been found that air pollutants threaten human health at lower concentrations than previously thought. Global air pollution now causes seven million deaths around the world each year, with over 90% of these deaths occurring in low and middle-income countries.
The new guidelines make recommendations for common air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and SO2. They also recommend that the average annual PM2.5 concentrations should be no higher than five micrograms per cubic metre, halving the old average annual limit of 10.
“South Africa’s NAAQs are significantly weaker than even the old 2005 WHO guidelines. Despite setting this low bar, government’s own air quality rating map shows that a large portion of the Highveld and Limpopo still experience ‘poor’ air quality that exceeds the NAAQS, meaning that residents in these areas are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution on a regular basis, with serious health implications”, says CER attorney Timothy Lloyd.
The Deadly Air case
The contrast between the WHO guidelines and the new research on Eskom goes to the heart of the landmark Deadly Air case in which groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action, represented by CER, sued the government for its failure to reduce the toxic air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld in accordance with its own air quality management plan that seeks to protect residents’ right to a healthy environment.
“The Deadly Air case was heard in the Pretoria High Court in May 2021 and while we still await the verdict, these related developments further support the urgent need for the effective implementation of air quality laws and plans in the Mpumalanga Highveld, to reduce health impacts and uphold constitutional rights. We welcome the establishment of the expert panel to review South Africa’s air quality standards, in a context that not only demands stricter health-based NAAQS, but also the unwavering enforcement of emission limits against big polluters such as Eskom as part of a just transition away from South Africa’s unsustainable coal-based economy” Lloyd says.
 Eskom’s 15 coal power plants (44 GW) emitted 2,100 thousand tonnes (kt) of SO2 based on the company’s own monthly emissions reports.