/ 20 March 2024

Some 32 000 people could die if SA doesn’t switch to greener power sooner

Matla Power Station Credit Eskom
Eskom is not complying with the National Environmental Management Air Quality Act, which presents the threat of a number of coal power plants having to shut down in the next year, (Eskom)

The draft of South Africa’s new energy plan could throw a spanner in the works when it comes to lowering its contribution to global warming by 2050 — and in the process cause about 32 000 unnecessary deaths, says Lauri Myllyvirta, a senior analyst at the Finnish air quality nonprofit, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea)

The 2015 Paris Agreement — an international commitment by member states of the United Nations to curb climate change — set as the 2050 deadline for when the world has to reach “net zero”. 

By the “net zero” stage, the amount of carbon that is released into the air from, for example, burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas should balance the amount that can be taken up by ecosystems, for instance, through plants that use carbon dioxide to grow and the gas dissolving in the oceans. 

According to one of the scenarios in the energy plan, South Africa needs to keep its coal-fired power plants running for up to 10 years longer than their shutdown date to keep the lights on in the country.

Img 2899 (zano Kunene Bhekisisa)
COAL IS KING: But what does it mean for people’s health? (Zano Kunene/Bhekisisa)

This means the country finds itself facing two seemingly irreconcilable demands. 

State-owned, national electricity provider Eskom must have about 70% of the electricity its power stations can generate available on the grid by 2030 (the energy availability factor, EAF) to ensure that there’s enough electricity to put an end to load-shedding and, in turn, help the economy grow

Yet over the past seven years, the EAF has steadily dropped — from 78% in 2017 to about 53% by March 2024 — meaning that every year there’s less electricity available than what is needed. 

To get to a point where the country will have enough reliable electricity available, it seems logical to extend existing power stations’ lifespan, instead of taking them out of service once they’re too old, experts argue. (On average, Eskom’s fleet of coal-fired power stations are about 45 years old, which is close to the 50 years they’re designed to run.)

Only, this doesn’t line up with South Africa’s plan, as one of the parties to the Paris Agreement to do its part in keeping global warming to below 1.5°C. This means the layer of air close to the Earth’s surface shouldn’t get more than 1.5°C warmer than it was before the start of the Industrial Revolution about 150 years ago. 

For this to happen, the government, like other countries’, will have to cut the amount of carbon released into the air by a great deal, to help the world lower emissions by 45% by 2030, says the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and get to “net zero” by 2050.

Given that 70% to 80% of South Africa’s electricity comes from burning coal, lowering carbon emissions and simultaneously ramping up electricity supply seem unattainable.

But if South Africa continues to rely on coal for power, people’s health will suffer.

A tug-of-war — with no winners

Burning coal puts carbon dioxide into the air, as well as other pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and tiny bits of solid material or droplets of liquid (called particulate matter). When inhaled, these chemicals can damage your airways and lungs and, over time, make it difficult to breathe. 

A study by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) shows that running coal-fired power plants in South Africa for eight years more than planned will cause 15 300 people to die from air pollution health problems such as lung cancer, asthma and heart disease, with pregnant women and children being especially likely to develop these conditions. 

Given changes to the country’s air quality standards in 2020, emissions from burning coal may not contain, per cubic metre of air, more than 500mg of sulphur dioxide, 750mg NOx and 50mg of particulate matter. But Eskom has missed a 2020 deadline to meet these requirements, and was given an extension by the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment to get six of its 17 coal-fired plants up to scratch by 2025. 

Yet the tug-of-war between having a stable electricity supply and healthy citizens continues — and seems to be stalled in a stalemate. 

Although the new draft of the energy plan notes that meeting the air quality standards will make it difficult to supply enough electricity, it doesn’t offer any firm plans for how this can be solved, says Ntombi Maphosa, an attorney from the Centre for Environmental Rights, because “it doesn’t address the issue in detail, or analyse the costs of illness to the public health system [or] the economy, or the cost of lives lost”.

Clearing the air

According to Eskom’s shutdown plan, power plants that have reached the end of their lifespan should stop working and then, in time, be broken down. This is because it becomes too expensive to keep on fixing and maintaining old equipment such as boilers, pipes and turbines used to generate electricity, or update them by installing newer, modern machinery — R400-billion if all 17 coal-fired power stations have to be fitted with new equipment that reduces the amount of pollutants pushed into the air.

But cost isn’t the only problem; efficiency also comes into the mix.

Burning coal releases a lot of energy that can be turned into electricity with simple technology and in a facility that covers a fairly small area. You can’t get the same amount of electricity from solar or wind energy from the area that a coal-fired station occupies, though, nor can it run 24 hours a day. This means that even if an old plant is converted to handle renewable energy sources, it won’t be able to add the same amount of electricity to the grid as it did when it burned coal. 

For example, the Komati power station, halfway between Middelburg and Bethel in Mpumalanga, was shut down in 2021 and the site is being converted to use renewable energy sources. But it will probably add only 350 megawatts of electricity to the grid, compared with the 1 000MW it was capable of churning out when running at full steam from coal, says Thevan Pillay, general manager of the station.

The government therefore wants to hold off on shutting down all plants that were due to be put out of service after 2035 by 10 years, until 2045. The state says this route will have “the lowest new build requirements and adequately maintain security of supply”, although carbon emissions will “remain high” in this period.

Delays now will cause deaths later

Eleven of Eskom’s 17 coal-fired power plants are in Mpumalanga.  

“People living there [Mpumalanga] can feel and smell the sulphur in the air,” says Myllyvirta.

Sulphur dioxide, which smells like a match that has just been struck, causes irritation in the throat, and inhaling it for a long time can lead to permanent difficulties in breathing.

Bhekisisa previously reported on how years-long exposure to pollution in Secunda, a town in Mpumalanga with the dirtiest air in the country because of Eskom’s coal-burning plants, has affected Khehla Mahlangu, 52. Today, he struggles to breathe when he walks or when sleeping, and he had to stop working as a manual labourer 17 years ago because of his health problems.

Research shows that air pollution of the kind produced by power stations is dangerous, can lead to a loss of sense of smell and heart problems.

In 2023, Eskom emitted close to 1.5 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide and almost 130 000 tonnes of particulate matter. 

“Breathing becomes harder each day,” Mahlangu told Bhekisisa in November last year.

Why 32 000 deaths?

Delaying the shutdown of power stations that were due to start closing before 2030 by eight years, will probably push out the shutdown of other coal stations to a later date too, the  study found. In such a scenario, which is similar to the new draft energy plan, there would probably be more than 32 000 deaths. Of these, 13 000 could come from inhaling particulate matter, 6 100 because of nitrogen oxides and 13 000 because of sulphur dioxide. 

To work this out, researchers used Eskom’s emissions data for 2022 and assumed that the numbers will be the same until the plants are retired.

They then used a model of air movement to figure out where the emissions go, looked at South Africa’s health data such as asthma cases in children, strokes or deaths from lung cancer and projected what the effect of being exposed to the dirty air would be on people’s health. 

But the flip side is also true: retiring plants prevents deaths, Crea’s analysis shows.

In the three years since the Komati power station has been offline, an estimated 220 deaths from air pollution have been prevented, as well as 760 asthma emergency room visits and 360 preterm births.


In most countries where air pollution has been tackled successfully, curbing emissions from coal-fired plants is a large part of their strategies, says Myllyvirta. But South Africa’s regulations are weak, and so the health of people living near coal-fired power stations suffers.

For example, in China the limit for sulphur dioxide emissions is 35mg per cubic metre of air, a target they can reach because most of their coal power stations are fitted with special filters that catch sulphur dioxide and stop it from being spewed out into the air. 

In contrast, Eskom is allowed to emit 3 500mg of sulphur dioxide per cubic metre from its older plants (because it would be too expensive to install such filtering devices at these facilities) and 500mg/m3 from its newer ones.

Legally, very little will happen if South Africa doesn’t reach net zero by 2050, because the Paris Agreement asks signatories only to submit their planned targets every five years but doesn’t force member states to comply with them

But this doesn’t mean communities in areas with dirty air can’t take action, says Maphosa.

In 2022, the North Gauteng high court ruled that poor air quality in the part of Mpumalanga where big air-polluting industries such as Eskom and Sasol are, denied residents of a group of municipalities, including Lesedi and eMalahleni, their constitutional right to living in a healthy environment.

The court ordered the government to pass regulations that would force industries to put measures in place to lower air pollution on the Highveld and give people cleaner air to breathe. 

Maphosa concludes: “Communities can use this order to demand industries to comply with the law, and to show them that [they] are violating [people’s] constitutional rights.” 

This story was produced with support from Internews’s Earth Journalism Network.

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