Johannesburg's Appalling Air Quality: We Can't Let Sasol and Eskom off the Hook

By Glenn Ashton · 19 Aug 2014

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Picture: Arnold Paul/Wikimedia Commons
Picture: Arnold Paul/Wikimedia Commons

The air in the interior of South Africa is amongst some of the most polluted in the world. It is killing our people. We see photographs and reports of air pollution in China and elsewhere but seldom do we see any comparable local coverage of the scourge of South African air pollution. Our coal addiction silently kills thousands of people every year, with impunity.

Over the past two decades South Africa has developed some of the most comprehensive environmental legislation in the world. Despite this we continue to struggle against the fossilised thinking of those intent on continuing business as usual, reliant on green-washing themselves out of trouble. This is no longer an option in 2014.

South Africa is the world’s 27th largest economy yet is the 12th highest CO2 emitter. Our incredibly carbon intensive economy burns its way through an estimated 190 million tonnes of coal per annum to power the economy. On top of this we export around 70 million tonnes of coal per year to the rest of the world, mainly to Europe, China and India.

Most of this coal is exploited by two of our industrial giants, our tweedledum and tweedledee of energy expenditure, Eskom and Sasol. Eskom, a parastatal, is the world’s fifth largest electricity company and one of the world’s top three polluters through its continued reliance on coal to fuel its power stations. Sasol, which began life as a parastatal until it was floated in 1979, is the world’s leading converter of coal, and subsequently gas, to liquid fuels. It is now responsible for the world’s largest single spot source of CO2 emissions at its massive Secunda processing plant.

These two world-class emitters of climate-changing carbon dioxide also spew out a soup of polluting compounds, including sulphur, nitrous oxide and particulates, each linked to specific negative health and environmental impacts. Other noxious chemicals included in this brew include radically toxic substances like cadmium, chromium, lead, barium and mercury.

To compound the problem these emissions are released over South Africa’s interior plateau, where they are trapped by atmospheric temperature inversions, especially during the cold winter months, which causes dangerous concentrations of noxious compounds. A recent visit to Johannesburg reminded me of just how bad this problem has become, with the city barely visible from Sandton, a few miles away. Yet the pollution in Jo’burg is not nearly as bad as hotspots like Witbank in Mpumalanga, which EU scientists have found to be amongst the worst in the world, exceeding even China’s infamous pollution levels.

South Africa’s environmental legislation arises out of Section 24 of the Constitution, which promises citizens the right to a healthy environment by, amongst other things, legislating against pollution. The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) is the keystone environmental legislation. It was promulgated in 1997, after a comprehensive consultation process. It has led to further legislation to specifically address the worsening scourge of air pollution.

The National Environmental Management Air Quality Act, or NEM:AQA was years in the making and was finally promulgated in 2004. Regulations only came into effect in 2010, again after extensive consultation with industry, including Sasol and Eskom. All major industrial emitters were fully informed of the process and were well aware that they would have to comply with this legislation.

Now, more than a decade since the Air Quality Act was passed, Eskom and Sasol have applied for exemption from having to comply with the new clear air regulations. This utterly unacceptable situation indicates a profound duplicity, by firstly delaying the relevant legislation and its regulations through extended negotiations and then going on to insist that it would be too expensive to comply. These tactics are nothing more than an unconscionable attempt to delay the inevitable, while simultaneously maximising revenue by externalising the true costs of their actions.

The social and environmental costs of our present pollution are dire. The accounting company KPMG showed that the direct costs of air pollution in South Africa to exceed a billion Rands per annum, illustrating how poorly economic indicators reflect our lived reality.

The indirect costs are far higher. For instance how does one estimate the cost impacts of mercury accumulation in fish and the consequent negative health and environmental effects of that? What about the direct impacts on the people of Mpumalanga, with the dirtiest air in the world and where the health impacts are palpable amongst these communities? Costs of this magnitude are simply incalculable.

The injustice of it all is that there is already a suite of practical tools available to reduce these pollutants and their impacts through chemical scrubbing, filtration and other technology, capable of removing most of the most toxic pollutants. While these mechanisms do have associated costs, these are readily offset against the otherwise externalised costs which are unjustly transferred to society and the environment through the impacts of this pollution.

Eskom has coldly insisted that it is simply too expensive to meet the required national limits set by the new regulations. It argues in papers submitted to government that it would cost the company over R250 billion to meet required limits. This would in turn hike the already inflationary consumer cost of electricity by around 20%. Instead of meeting these limits Eskom suggests reducing pollutants by a mere 2%, which would cost consumers 4% more in electricity prices.

Sasol makes similar claims in its motivation for exemption from meeting the required clean air requirements. However Sasol’s case is even weaker than Eskom’s pathetic dissimulations; analysis shows that it can easily absorb the costs of removing pollutants through its business model, offsetting the investment in clean technology over a number of years. Going this route would also create more employment. It would simply be unconscionable for the JSE’s largest carbon emitter to become in any way exempt from cleaning up its act and Sasol’s shareholders are arguably morally remiss.

In the final analysis it is imperative that Eskom and Sasol comply with our long overdue air quality legislation. We cannot collectively be taken for fossil fools, duped by the self-serving rhetoric of legislative avoidance. The costs of pollution are insidious and hidden, which is precisely why vigilance is required to attain the constitutional imperative of cleaning up the air we breathe.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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