A new world report fingering Kriel in Mpumalanga as the second-worst global hotspot for sulphur dioxide (SO2), has pitted government and environmentalists against each other.
The department of environment, forestry, and fisheries is weighing up a proposal to relax SO2 restrictions from power stations – but world climate experts are calling for the South African government to “not waste any more time” and clean up the toxic air.
“We are, in fact, in the midst of an ‘air-pocalypse’,” said Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager at Greenpeace Africa, about the latest Greenpeace India study using National Aeronautics and Space Administration satellites.
“South Africa’s air is absolutely filthy and data analysis consistently confirms this. We already know that Mpumalanga is among the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution hotspots in the world,” Steele said.
“Now we know that the province is also home to the second largest SO2 emission in the world – second only to the Norilsk smelter complex in Russia. We simply cannot afford to waste any more time by delaying industry compliance with air quality legislation or the transition to renewable energy.”
Lauri Myllyvirta, senior analyst at Greenpeace Nordic, said the burning of fossil fuels was the largest source of emissions of SO2.
“Clean energy could save billions of dollars in health costs and thousands of lives every year,” said Myllyvirta. “It’s fundamental that governments rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and set stronger emission standards as they shift over to sustainable alternatives.”
In February, The Citizen reported SA’s leaders have known since late 2017 that Eskom’s emissions were responsible for an estimated 2,239 deaths a year, after air quality and health expert Mike Holland presented a report to them.
Eskom’s own figures of the deaths were 333 a year – but it still wanted a fourth postponement of compliance (and in some cases exemption) from compliance with air pollution laws.
Holland said at the time emissions caused 2,781 cases of chronic bronchitis per year in adults, 9,533 cases of bronchitis per year in children aged six to 12, 2,379 hospital admissions per year, nearly four million days of restricted activity per year, and 94,680 days of asthma symptoms in children aged five to 19.
Earlier this year, groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action took on then environmental minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who originally wanted to relax SO2 standards by half. That would have allowed double the emissions currently being spewed into the Mpumalanga sky.
Mokonyane’s idea led to court action.
“As the former minister withdraw the unlawful notice published in October 2018 that weakened the SO2 limit, which was the subject of … the challenge, CER is in the process of withdrawing the court application to review and set aside that notice,” said Timothy Lloyd, an attorney at CER (the Centre for Environmental Rights). “This is on condition the state pays for the applicant’s costs incurred in the application to date, which it has agreed to do.”
Robyn Hugo, also an attorney at CER, said the organisation had yet to receive any feedback on its submissions opposing the doubling, or an indication as to whether – and if so – when, the SO2 limit for coal boilers would be amended following the public participation process.
Hugo said the department had set up an expert panel to deal with the various issues around the poisonous gas.
“It is, however, not at all clear how the work of this panel will impact on the proposed doubling. We have objected to this panel as unnecessary and a duplication of existing work,” Hugo said.
Sulphur dioxide emissions aren’t all that bad – professor
A former Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town professor called for a reassessment of the environmental impacts of sulphur oxide emissions from power stations from at least 2013, according to a paper written by him.
Professor Philip Lloyd, now deceased, wrote it was a deeply entrenched belief emissions of sulphur dioxide were harmful to the environment.
“Extensive work in both North America and Europe has failed to demonstrate any of the early claims for impacts such as forest death,” Lloyd said.
He noted his paper had demonstrated it should not be assumed that the emission of sulphur oxides by industrial operations were inherently bad.
“Any reasoned assessment of the impacts shows that, at the level at which they occur, the negative impacts are very low.”