South Africa’s silent killer

 ·27 May 2024

South Africa is a hotspot for air pollution, which has caused thousands of deaths and other health consequences.

Although pollution is often linked to long-term consequences of global warming, there are immediate health impacts.

According to a report from the Health Effects Institute and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, 25,800 people in South Africa died due to air pollution (fine inhalable particles with diameters of 2.5 micrometres and smaller (PM2.5)) in 2019.

For context, data from Stats SA showed that 6,453 people died in road transport accidents in 2019 – roughly a quarter of all the number of people who died due to air pollution.

Greenpeace said that the entire South African population is exposed to annual average PM2.5 concentrations that are above WHO guidelines, with children, the sick and the elderly the most at risk.

“Impacts from breathing in polluted air are, for example, coughing, sore or scratchy throats, inflamed airways, decreased lung function, irregular heartbeats, nonfatal heart attacks, and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease,” said the non-profit.

Fossil fuels make up 90% of the country’s energy demand, meaning that South Africa is the largest emitter of sulfur dioxide on the continent. The country is also the 12th largest greenhouse gas polluter in the world when looking at carbon dioxide.

Gauteng, the North West, Free State, and Mpumalanga are the provinces with the worst exposure to PM2.5 pollution, which puts close to half of the total population at risk.

The worst areas for air pollution are to the east of Johannesburg, where coal mines, coal-fired power stations, petrochemical facilities, metal smelters, and other industrial complexes are located.

The Vaal Triangle, where 1.7 million people live, is the most polluted place on earth, with emissions from Sasol’s Secunda plant, Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and steelmaker ArcelorMittal SA’s site primarily responsible.

According to IQAir’s 2023 World Air Quality Report, Benoni was the most polluted regional city in Africa, with 8 South African cities making the top 15 in Africa.

Positive and negative signs

That said, IQAir did see an improvement in air quality in South Africa.

“The air quality in South Africa as a whole has improved significantly from 2022. The country’s annual PM2.5 concentration showed a 14.8% decrease, going from 23.4 µg/m3 in 2022 to 19.9 µg/m3 in 2023,” it said.

The PM2.5 concentration levels rose in 18 cities and fell in 17 cities, showing a near-equal distribution of air quality trends, with significant improvements observed in major cities nationwide.

Decreases in annual average PM2.5 concentrations were seen in:

  • Cape Town;
  • eMbalenhle;
  • Harbeespoort;
  • Johannesburg;
  • Pretoria.

However, South Africa faces several stumbling blocks in lowering its emissions.

For example, Sasol recently won a legal battle with air quality regulators, allowing it to tackle its emissions targets through alternative processes that differ from South Africa’s established regulations.

Essentially, regulations state that groups like Sasol must limit their operations’ concentration of sulphur dioxide. Nevertheless, Sasol could address its emission targets by cutting its load (i.e., the number of boilers operating) instead.

Non-profit shareholder activism organisation Just Share said that granting Sasol’s appeal will result in roughly 50% to 130% higher negative impacts than Minimum Emission Standards compliance.

According to a report by Carbon Majors, Sasol was recently named one of the 57 companies responsible for 80% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Eskom has also announced that it will extend the life of three coal-fired power stations beyond their retirement deadlines between 2023 and 2027 to prevent the national grid from becoming vulnerable.

This comes despite South Africa receiving $11.8 billion (R215 billion) from wealthy nations, including France, England, the USA, the Netherlands, and Spain, to lower emissions as part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership.

Eskom head of generation Bheki Nxumalo said that the group is confident that it is committed to lowering emissions but that its efforts must be viewed across the whole generation fleet.

Read: How much more you’re paying for banking fees in South Africa: 2019 vs 2024

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