Mpumalanga province has the highest levels of air pollution in the world, topping nitrogen dioxide levels across six continents, according to a new analysis by environmental activist organisation Greenpeace.
Greenpeace compiled the analysis using data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P satellite. It provides imagery detailing air pollution levels across six continents from June 1 to August 31 2018.
According to Greenpeace, coal mines, transport and Eskom’s 12 coal-fired power stations have been identified as the biggest sources of air pollution in the province.
Nitrogen dioxide is a compound that contributes to the formation of tiny particulates known as PM2.5 (particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter) and ground-level ozone. These are classified as hazardous types of air pollution.
Persistent exposure to high PM2.5 levels and ozone leads to a range of long-term health conditions such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
Mpumalanga joins other nitrogen dioxide hotspots such as Germany, India and China which also have clusters of coal-fired power plants and cities such as Santiago de Chile, London, Paris, Dubai and Tehran which feature on the list because of “transport-related emissions”, the analysis documents.
According to Greenpeace, South Africa has “weak” Minimum Emission Standards that allow coal stations to “emit up to 10 times more nitrogen dioxide than allowed in China or Japan”.
Minimum emission standards are regulations that set limits on the amount of air pollutants that are allowed to be emitted from a specified source over a certain time period.
Greenpeace says Eskom’s coal power stations are not compliant with the standards and that the power utility received permission to postpone compliance for five years in 2015. According to the analysis, Eskom has applied for another postponement for nitrogen oxides for 16 of its 19 power plants.
The National Environmental Management: Air Quality Actallows emitters to delay compliance with the Act by submitting their reasons to the department of environmental affairs.
Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa, said in a statement that air pollution is a “global health crisis” and that government needs to come up with urgent interventions to address it.
“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.”
“This means that no new coal-fired power stations can be included in the national electricity plan (IRP 2018), units five and six of Kusile coal power plant in Mpumalanga must be cancelled, and 50 percent of current coal-fired power stations need to be decommissioned by 2030 in line with the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C”, said Steele.
In 2014, the Mail & Guardian reported that air pollution caused by Eskom coal power stations in Mpumalanga and Limpopo are killing at least 20 people a year and could jump to 617, with 25 000 people hospitalised, once all its stations are up and running.
This disclosure is contained in Eskom-commissioned reports that were released following a Promotion of Access to Information Act application by non governmental organisation, Centre for Environmental Rights.
The report on Mpumalanga found that air pollution in the province killed about 550 people a year and hospitalised about 117 200. Household fuel-burning was responsible for half of this, with Eskom responsible for 3% of deaths but this number due to increase as more power stations were built.
According to the World Health Organisation, 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution. This type of pollution contributed to 7.6% of all deaths in 2016. It is also the kind of pollution that blows across Mpumalanga.
The health organisation’s website says that as “air quality declines, the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma, increases for the people who live in [polluted communities]”.