Greenpeace hits back at unions

Greenpeace has called on the National Union of Mineworkers and other unions to engage with them on renewable energy strategies, after the union called the organisation “reckless” for releasing a report that found Mpumalanga air to be the most polluted in the world.

“People’s lives are on the line, and air pollution is clearly a public health crisis that can no longer be ignored,” Greenpeace Africa senior climate and energy campaign manager, Melita Steele, said in a statement.

Steele’s remarks come in the wake of criticism levelled at Greenpeace by the NUM, which denounced a recent report by the organisation as a “clear” campaign to get the government to close power stations and coal mines in Mpumalanga.

The report, which was released by the organisation last week, found that Mpumalanga province has the highest levels of air pollution in the world, topping nitrogen dioxide levels across six continents.

READ MORE: Mpumalanga tops world nitrogen dioxide air pollution charts

The findings were made by Greenpeace by analysing data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5P satellite, which shows 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.

In a press statement, the union’s Highveld region said Greenpeace “does not have the interest of poor people and the workers who are going to be affected by the closing down of the 12 power stations and coal mines in Mpumalanga”.

But Steele says it is in the interests of all South Africans “to breathe clean air”.

“It is particularly important for our children, who are most vulnerable to the devastating health impacts of breathing polluted air,” Steele said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) lists air pollution as one of the biggest burdens on the health of children.

According to WHO research, also released last week, 93% of the world’s under-15 population breathes in air that is “so polluted that it puts their health and development at serious risk”.

In 2016, air pollution killed 600 000 children around the world, and it is responsible for one in 10 deaths of children under the age of five, WHO said.

READ MORE: World’s children bear the brunt of toxic air

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.

“Exposing the truth about air pollution in South Africa is a must. What would be reckless would be to withhold information from the people of Mpumalanga … about the devastating pollution that they are exposed to, and to pretend that there are no alternatives,” Steele added.

But the concern that South Africa’s turn to renewable sources of energy will cost people their jobs is a pervasive — especially following Energy Minister Jeff Radebe’s R56-billion deal with independent power producers (IPP).

Last week Greenpeace suggested, in light of its findings, that no new coal-fired power stations be included in the national electricity plan, that units of Kusile coal power plant in Mpumalanga be cancelled and that half of current coal-fired power stations be decommissioned by 2030.

“If the power stations and coal mines are closed in Mpumalanga several towns including Witbank will become ghost towns … If the power stations and mines are shut down, the economy of our country will collapse and the people will be left in darkness,” Cosatu-aligned NUM said this week.

The National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa) — the biggest union in competing federation South African Federation of Trade Unions — has adopted a tough anti-renewable, pro-coal stance in recent months.

In March, Numsa attempted to obtain an urgent interdict against the IPP deal, saying signing these contracts “would be detrimental for the working class of Mpumalanga and the country as a whole” because it would means that Eskom will require less coal fired electricity.

“This is likely to lead to the closure of the coal fired power plants and the impact will be that at least 30 000 working class families will suffer because of job losses,” the union said at the time.

The union has since said that it has “no ideological stance against renewable energy”, but that a transition away from coal-generated power must be in the interests of workers.

Steele concluded the Greenpeace statement by inviting the NUM and other unions, to engage with the organisation on a transition that would “create greener jobs and protect people and workers in the sector”.

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.
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