Eskom (Marco Longari/AFP)
To get the wheels of government moving, it seems one needs to be alarmist. Greenpeace Africa did this in an email to journalists in late October. “BREAKING: World’s largest air pollution hotspot is in Mpumalanga.”
The email went on to say that Greenpeace, which is campaigning to get Eskom to shut down its coal-fired power plants, had analysed satellite data over three months, looking specifically at nitrogen dioxide pollution. Their analysis had found that Mpumalanga was “topping the charts as the world’s largest nitrogen dioxide hotspot across six continents”.
Nitrogen dioxide inflames the lungs’ lining and lowers immunity to infections such as bronchitis.
The gas comes from car exhausts and Eskom’s coal-fired power plants, it concluded. Greenpeace could tell this from the data transmitted by the European Space Agency’s new satellite. It could also compare the pollution with other hotspots.
Greenpeace focused on Eskom, pointing out that its coal-fired plants do not comply with South Africa’s minimum standards for air pollution. When these came into effect, in 2015, the utility asked for a delay in complying with the regulations. It intends to continue applying for these delays at older, most-polluting power plants until they are shut down in the next two decades.
The media picked up on the email’s title, conflating nitrogen dioxide from Eskom with all sources and kinds of air pollution. Headlines ranged from “Mpumalanga has world’s dirtiest air, says Greenpeace” to “Mpumalanga identified as the world’s biggest air pollution hotspot”.
Parliament’s environmental portfolio committee called a meeting with Greenpeace, air pollution scientists and Eskom. Greenpeace presented its report. Air pollution modellers queried Greenpeace’s methodology and accused it of ensuring that the data would produce the results it wanted.
The modellers’ main point of contention is the satellite had been operating for only three months, during the period when pollution over the Mpumalanga highveld is at its worst. Pollution hotspots in India and China aren’t as bad at this time of year. As a result Mpumalanga comes out looking like the worst place in the world for nitrogen dioxide pollution. They also pointed out that the emissions are released high up and spread across a large area and are thus within legal limits.
The frustrated modellers said this kind of research breaks people’s trust and gives science a bad name.
But the alarm strategy worked. Eskom and the environment department, responsible for keeping air quality in South Africa at healthy levels, were grilled on Wednesday last week by members of the portfolio committee. They got Eskom to admit that its air pollution was responsible for the deaths of, on average, 333 people each year.
The Mail & Guardian has previously tried to get these numbers from the utility. It refused, saying they were of “limited use”. The newspaper then used figures obtained by the Centre for Environmental Rights with a Promotion of Access to Information Act request. The M&G was then able to run a story to say that between 20 and 600 people die each year as a result of air pollution.
But Eskom couldn’t refuse the portfolio committee. The utility went on to say that the 333 deaths each year cost the economy R18-billion. This is based on the utility’s calculations of its effect in 2017 and 2018.
Greenpeace achieved its objective of getting Eskom to admit that its coal-fired power plants are bad for people’s health. But the utility will run its old plants for at least another decade and is commissioning its new coal-fired plants, Medupi and Kusile.
The energy department has signed contracts with private power plants. These stations will, however, release far fewer pollutants. The utility says it is spending R46-billion over the next decade to reduce its pollution.