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Eskom is the world’s worst-polluting power company by SO2

Eskom has become the world’s largest single emitter of dangerous sulphur dioxide (SO2), outstripping the entire power sector emissions of any country in the world, with the exception of India.

A new study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air has found that Eskom’s SO2 emissions in 2019 exceeded those from the power sectors from each of the world’s three largest economies — China, the US and EU.

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These emissions contribute to high levels of ambient (outdoor) air pollution and to air-pollution-related deaths in South Africa, which air pollution expert Mike Holland found was responsible for about 2 200 deaths annually, in a 2017 study

Most of these deaths are due to SO2 emissions, which form deadly PM2.5 particles — fine inhalable particles with diameters generally 2.5 micrometres and smaller. The average human hair is about 70 micrometres in diameter. 

“The main way in which SO2 emissions harm the health of South Africans is by increasing the level of PM2.5 pollution. SO2 turns into PM2.5 particles in the air,” the centre’s lead analyst, Lauri Myllyvirta, told the Mail & Guardian.

His study found that while most other regions with large power sector air pollutant emissions have made rapid progress in reducing emissions, Eskom has been “stuck in place, lobbying against even the most rudimentary requirements to curb its SO2 pollution”. 

As a result, the company has now become the worst SO2 emitting power company in the world. Eskom, too, emits more SO2 than the entire power sector of the EU and US, or the US and China, combined.

According to the study, the utility’s 15 coal power plants (constituting 44 gigawatts) emitted 1 600 kilotonnes (kt) of SO2 in the 2020-2021 financial year, based on its integrated report.

Eskom’s integrated reports show a reduction in SO2 emissions in the past two fiscal years, falling by 13% from 2018-19 to 2020-21, Myllyvirta explained. 

“This is largely due to load-shedding, so Eskom hardly deserves credit for it, but I used the most recent, lower, data point for Eskom. I also used the most recent available data point for all other emitters.” 

“If or when Eskom’s power generation recovers, emissions will rise further, and the company will stand out even further as the world’s highest-emitting power generator,” he says.

According to the report, based on the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, the six economies with the highest power sector SO2 emissions in 2015 were India, the US, China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the EU. 

Out of these emitters, the US, EU and China have since realised “dramatic” emission reductions, while India as a country remains the largest polluter, and it’s a “tight race” between South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

“However, our analysis of emissions data from each of these countries shows that by 2019, Eskom had become the world’s most polluting power company measured by SO2  emissions,” said Myllyvirta’s study.

China has carried out a massive retrofit programme, installing cutting-edge desulphurisation equipment on its entire fleet of coal-fired power plants, more than 20 times as large as that of South Africa, in just a decade. 

“As a result, SO2 emissions from the power sector fell from a humongous 13-million tonnes in 2006 to two-million tonnes in 2015, below South Africa’s level. During the past five years, equipment was upgraded or replaced to reach so-called ‘ultralow’ emissions levels at more than 90% of the fleet, delivering a further 60% reduction to 780kt in 2020,” the study read. 

The EU and US have retrofitted and rapidly closed down coal power plants. 

“The entire electricity and heat sector of the 28 EU countries, including 231 coal power plants in the EU, emitted 560kt SO2 in 2019, one-third of Eskom’s emissions.” 

The EU’s emissions plunged from 12-million tonnes in 1990 to 1.4-million tonnes in 2013, falling below Eskom’s current emissions level, and then further by 45% between 2013 and 2019. 

According to Myllyvirta’s study, Eskom’s emissions are also more than twice as high as those from the entire power sector of the US, including 249 coal-fired power plants. 

“US emissions fell by 64% from 2015 to 2020, and a whopping 94% from their peak in 1998. Emissions stood at 11.9-million tonnes in 1998, first falling below South Africa’s level in 2016, registered at two-million tonnes, and then falling a further 64% to 720kt in 2020.” 

India’s power sector SO2 emissions were estimated by the International Energy Agency at a towering 4 300kt in 2019, entirely due to coal-burning. 

“Like South Africa, almost all of the country’s coal power plants run without any kind of sulphur emissions controls, although the country is slowly working to implement emissions rules passed in 2015. However, Indian coal is much lower in sulphur than South African coal, meaning that despite having more than five times as much coal-fired capacity, the emissions are ‘only’ twice as high,” Myllyvirta said. 

Its coal-fired capacity is operated by dozens of different firms, the largest of which is NTPC, with a share of 21% of installed capacity. “This means that even the largest emitter in India falls far short of Eskom in terms of tonnes of CO2 spewed into the air.”

Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) introduced stricter air quality guidelines for pollutants such as PM2.5. “The WHO tightened its guideline for PM2.5, in a recognition that this pollutant is even more dangerous to health, and dangerous at lower levels, than previously realised,” said Myllyvirta. 

“The most important step that the government should take in response to the WHO’s new air quality guidelines is to update South Africa’s national air quality standards for PM2.5. And in turn, one of the key ways to reduce PM2.5 pollution would be to require Eskom to install SO2 control devices in its power plants, like China, EU, the US and many others have done,” he said.

The department of forestry, fisheries and the environment did not respond to the M&G’s request for comment.

Eskom told the M&G that it had not done its own analysis of the data “and has not been provided with an opportunity to review it. Therefore, we cannot comment on the accuracy of the statement referring to international trends. 

“Eskom is fully aware of its obligations to the environment and to the community. It has embarked on a programme to transition retiring coal-fired power stations to renewable energy sources, with a view to attain a net zero status by 2050. 

“Eskom also continues to bring its power stations in line with legislative requirements in South Africa and to reduce its emissions to acceptable levels. On this, Eskom engages in continuous discussions with all the relevant stakeholders.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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