Mpumalanga has the world’s dirtiest air, says Greenpeace

An early morning photo of Middelburg, Mpumalanga covered in smog.

Data has revealed that South Africa has the most polluting cluster of coal-fired power stations in the world.

Mpumalanga has topped the chart as the world’s largest NO2 hotspot across six continents. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) is a dangerous pollutant by itself and also contributes to the formation of PM2.5 and ozone, two of the most dangerous forms of air pollution, Greenpeace has said.

Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa said: “It has been reported before that the eMalahleni area has the world’s dirtiest air, and now this analysis of high tech satellite data has revealed that the Mpumalanga Province is the global number one hotspot for NO2 emissions. This confirms that South Africa has the most polluting cluster of coal-fired power stations in the world which is both disturbing and very scary.”

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Mpumalanga is home to a cluster of twelve coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of over 32 gigawatts owned and operated by Eskom.

The satellite data further reveals that the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria are also highly affected by extreme NO2 pollution levels which blow across from Mpumalanga and into both cities due to close proximity and regular east winds.

The average wind directions over Johannesburg and Pretoria in the last 30 years on Meteoblue show that for about 28% of the year, the wind is blowing over Johannesburg from either ENE, E, ESE, SE, SSE, and S which means the winds would be blowing pollution from coal-fired power plants right into the cities. This means that plumes of dangerous NO2 pollution regularly cover these cities and their eight million people.

Steele continued: “Because South Africa’s coal-belts are hidden from view for the majority of South Africans, it can be easy to pretend that they don’t actually exist. The reality is that coal extraction and burning has devastating impacts on the people living in the area. This satellite data now confirms that there is nowhere to hide: Eskom’s coal addiction in Mpumalanga means that millions of people living in Johannesburg and Pretoria are also impacted by the pollution from coal.”

The list of the largest NO2 hotspots in the world includes well known coal-fired power plants in South Africa, Germany, and India, and a total of nine coal power and industrial clusters in China. Cities such as Santiago de Chile, London, Paris, Dubai, and Tehran also feature high in the ranking due to transport-related emissions.

“Air pollution is a global health crisis, with up to 95% of the world’s population breathing unsafe air. South Africa is a significant global hotspot with its high concentration of coal power stations and its weak air pollution standards. Our government urgently needs to come up with an action plan that protects millions of people, instead of dirty coal power stations,” said Steele.

Compared with many other countries, South Africa has relatively weak Minimum Emission Standards (MES) that allow coal-fired power stations to emit up to 10 times more NO2 than allowed in China or Japan. Nonetheless, the majority of Eskom’s ancient and highly polluting coal-fired power stations do not comply with these MES. In 2015, Eskom was granted a five-year postponement from complying with MES.

In 2018, Eskom has again applied for postponements for nitrogen oxides for 16 of its 19 power plants, including 14 coal-fired power plants and 2 liquid fuel power plants.

“Coal kills, and Greenpeace strongly opposes any further postponements from complying with air quality regulations and demands that all coal-fired power stations that don’t comply with the existing air quality regulations be decommissioned on an accelerated timeline.

“The government should also set up an action plan with concrete steps, measures, and deadlines to make sure that air pollution levels in high priority areas comply with existing regulations. This means that no new coal-fired power stations can be included in the national electricity plan (IRP 2018), unit 5 and 6 of Kusile Coal Power Plant in Mpumalanga must be cancelled and 50% of current coal-fired power stations need to be decommissioned by 2030 in line with the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C.”

With hotspots across six continents, the satellite imagery shows the global extent and cross-boundary nature of the crisis.

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