Eskom's date for decommissioning coal-fired stations must consider people's health

Eskom’s power stations are major contributors to both greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution. (Gustav Butlex)

Eskom’s power stations are major contributors to both greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution. (Gustav Butlex)

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s statement to the United Nations secretary general’s climate summit talks last month was about a just transition transaction. This includes the decommissioning of Eskom’s coal-fired stations, as well as the addition of “significant additional renewable energy capacity, the funding of large-scale regional programmes to offset adverse impacts on workforces through economic development and the financial stabilisation of our electricity sector”.

This sounds promising. Eskom’s power stations are major contributors to both greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution, so accelerating their decommissioning means reducing our exposure to climate change and improving human health.

The Life After Coal Campaign relentlessly advocates for Eskom to comply with pollution standards — the minimum emission standards, limiting how much they can pollute — and demonstrates the severe health effects of its continued failure to do so. It’s worth noting that such failures are criminal offences for which directors can be held personally liable. Eskom has known about these minimum emission standards since they became law on March 31 2010. Moreover, they are substantially weaker than pollution standards in other developing countries. Despite this, the power utility has sought — and been granted — numerous extensions ensure its stations comply with the law. And yet, as its chief operating officer admits: Eskom has not “done the work we said we would”.

It is no secret that Eskom’s dire financial position threatens to topple the whole country and environmental compliance is nowhere near the top of its to-do list — if it’s on there at all. Since long before Eskom found itself in this mess, the Life after Coal Campaign has argued that if Eskom fails to meet pollution limits, it should speed up the retirement of its dirty, old power stations in a manner that is fair to coal workers and their families. It is clearly nonsensical to spend big money to retrofit stations that will imminently decommissioned.

There are no fixed dates for stations to shut down and what does not feature in discussions about the expense of reducing Eskom’s pollution is the staggering financial cost to the country of people who are sick and dying prematurely because of air pollution. Their families are also burdened with financial costs, not to mention the emotional toll.

Eskom’s most recent — and still pending — applications to postpone or be exempt from minimum emission standards compliance must figure in just transition transaction discussions about decommissioning dates. Our air-quality laws permit facilities to seek suspensions of minimum emission standards compliance if — amongst other factors — such applications are linked to a “detailed decommissioning schedule” for facilities to be shut down by March 2030 31. Eskom has made such applications and Greenpeace research indicates that granting them means its pollution will be responsible for about 3 100 premature deaths annually in Gauteng and, over time, 16 000 premature deaths from lower respiratory infections, diabetes, lung cancer, heart disease, strokes and pulmonary disease.

Just transition transaction deliberations should also consider that the minister of environment, forestry and fisheries is likely to decide to double sulphur dioxide limits from April 2020. This is the date at which any “solid-fuel combustion installations” (including Sasol’s 12 coal boilers, Kelvin power station, and Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power stations) that have not had minimum emission standards compliance postponed must meet a sulphur dioxide emission limit of 500 mg/Nm3 (much stricter than the current minimum emissions standard of 3 500 mg/Nm3). The minister wants to double that to 1000 mg/Nm3 — about 28 times weaker than China’s standard and 10 times weaker than India’s. This will have a profound effect on the health of children, elderly people, pregnant women and those already suffering from asthma, heart disease and lung disease.

The deadly air litigation was launched by Life after Coal following years of engagement and advocacy with industry and the government about acute air pollution in the Mpumalanga Highveld.  Extreme high levels of toxic pollution continue today, despite the Highveld being declared a priority air pollution area 12 years ago, and an air-quality management plan being developed to reduce pollution to “acceptable” levels. The litigation, based on our Constitution, seeks two main court orders: a declaration that the constitutional right to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing is being violated in the Highveld priority area; and to compel the minister to develop regulations to enforce the air-quality management plan. The government is more than three months late in responding to this case, meaning the applicants are forced to bring another application to compel it to do so.

As the just transition transaction continues to develop, we urge the government to consider the risks — and who bears them — of Eskom’s ongoing noncompliance with the law, its pending minimum emissions standards applications, and the proposed weakening of the sulphur dioxide minimum emissions standard. It is also imperative to ensure meaningful engagement with those people most impacted by just transition transaction-related decisions, particularly the local people and coal workers who live, breathe and work in these areas.

Robyn Hugo is an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights

Robyn Hugo

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