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Opinionista

Toxic air is a public health crisis

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Bukelwa Nzimande is Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace Africa.

Daily – and especially in Mpumalanga – we breathe in the waste products of burning fossil fuels, all sharing the same sinister invisibility at first glance as any deadly bacteria hiding in plain sight in the water we need to survive.

Maybe you have a child with asthma, or know someone with respiratory problems. Or have suffered a stroke, or struggle with heart disease. Chances are that air pollution is a significant contributing factor.

The cost of air pollution is high, and we are paying for it with our health. In 2018, 13,000 premature deaths recorded in South Africa could be attributed to air pollution from burning fossil fuels; 14,000 premature births in South Africa every year are attributable to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution exposure; so are the deaths of 40,000 children the world over before their fifth birthdays. There is absolutely no room to deny that air pollution is a public health crisis at a global scale.  

The numbers are clear, and have been for some time. In March 2019, Greenpeace released research that highlighted Mpumalanga as one of the worst nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution hotspots worldwide. This was accompanied by a health impact assessment, revealing that Eskom’s unchecked air pollution from coal is responsible for over 2,000 premature deaths annually in both Mpumalanga and Gauteng. Eskom itself has finally admitted that its air pollution kills, although its number is less than half of Greenpeace’s at 350 deaths; this while the utility applies for postponements from compliance with air quality standards. 

In August of the same year, an additional report was released, this time highlighting Kriel in Mpumalanga as the second-worst sulphur dioxide (SO2) pollution hotspot in the world. Allowing air pollution to continue unabated, and taking no action to drive change despite clear evidence that something is wrong, only makes us complicit in each and every air pollution-related death.

Section 24 of our Constitution is unambiguous in articulating our right to breathe clean air. The custodians of this right – the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries – need to mind their responsibilities and the expectations on them. Yet, Eskom recorded 3,200 exceedances of their Atmospheric Emission Licence over 21 months from April 2016 to December 2017 with little to no consequence; historic and consistent violations of the right to clean air clearly hold no gravitas for those in power, firmly entrenching people’s lives as secondary to the economic gain (or, in its scrambling state, protection) of the fossil fuel industry. At the end of the day, it is people who bear the brunt of it all.

The clear tendency has been to ignore the alarms raised about the toxic air (particularly, ironically, in the Highveld Priority Area). We can speculate about why; I flashback to a water drive in the early 2000s, with a slogan along the lines of: “Just because it’s clear doesn’t mean it’s clean.” This is the exact state of the air we breathe: on a run, on the cricket pitch, walking the dogs, or picnicking with our families. Just because we can’t always see the pollution doesn’t mean it isn’t poisoning us every day. We are left to breathe in all the waste products of burning fossil fuels (such as NO2, SO2 and PM2.5), all of them sharing the same sinister invisibility at first glance as any deadly bacteria hiding in plain sight in the water we need to survive.

While we fight for clean air, Eskom has submitted its application for postponements from compliance with South Africa’s Minimum Emission Standards, conveniently citing costs and effort required for compliance. According to Eskom’s environmental manager, installing all the technology needed to meet stricter emissions rules effective as of April 2020 could take South Africa’s power utility two decades. We do not have this time and Eskom is not taking the issue of air pollution – or, for that matter, the climate emergency – seriously enough. This cannot continue for another 20 years. Polluters cannot continue to sign thousands of death warrants each year, palms and shoulders raised, reciting their mantra: “Compliance is too expensive.” There is no acceptable way for polluters to avoid accountability any more, and finances can not continue to be placed above human life. 

South Africa is currently in a state of intermittent darkness due to Eskom’s reliance on increasingly unreliable, dirty, coal-fired power stations. The utility is drowning in billions of irreconcilable debt and is scrambling everywhere for relief. And through their recent dirt scratching efforts to recover costs from customers – rightly denied by the High Court – it would seem that Eskom wants South Africans to swim in shark-infested waters to try to hold the sinking ship afloat, shoulder the burden of crippling blackouts, and bear the financial brunt, all while holding their breath.

Air pollution and the climate emergency share the same solution: an immediate and just transition away from fossil fuels towards a renewable energy future. Coal is breaking the economy’s back, and there has never been a more opportune moment to chart a new path for South Africa. The investment space and markets are transforming, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power are cheaper and more reliable than coal-powered energy production – this has been the trend since 2015. 

The coal industry is dying. We must make sure that people do not continue to die along with it. DM

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