Delaying South Africa’s just energy transition could result in 15,000 excess deaths caused by air pollution

Medupi power station in South Africa, which is causing black-outs and air pollution deaths.
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Air pollution could kill more than 15,000 people by 2050 if coal-dependent South Africa delays its green transition.

A new study by non-profit the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) revealed that delaying the decommissioning of South Africa’s coal-fired power plants beyond 2030 “would cause a projected 15,300 excess air pollution-related deaths” between 2023 and 2050.

Additionally, the delay could also cost the country’s economy more than US $18bn.

Air pollution deaths

The Helsinki-based research centre said in the study that:

The air pollutant emissions from prolonged operation of the plants would have a major impact on public health in South Africa

Specifically, according to CREA, particulate matters exposure would cause around 6,200 of the extra deaths. Meanwhile, nitrogen dioxide exposure could kill 3,500 more people, and sulphur dioxide would cause 5,700 additional deaths.The study said that:

South Africa has a number of air pollution hotspots where air quality does not meet national air quality standards, let alone the WHO’s health-based guidelines

Read on...

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Notably, the exposure to these toxic gases could put people at risk of a series of different illnesses and health impacts. For instance, these include asthma, premature and underweight babies, depression, pneumonia and bronchitis, and dementia.

Coal dependency causing black-outs

Currently, the South African government has only retired one of the country’s power plants. Although not yet fully decommissioned, the study said that its closure has avoided 220 deaths.

The African nation remains one of the world’s top 12 largest polluters and the seventh largest coal producer. Coal is a bedrock of South Africa’s economy. It employs almost 100,000 people and accounts for 80% of the country’s electricity production.

However, the country has been facing a power crisis. Since 2007, the country’s public utility company Eskom has rationed power through “load-shedding” events. These are intentional scheduled blackouts to manage the power grid.

The blackouts were required due to a combination of ageing coal-fired infrastructure, poor management, and the flawed design of newer plants. As a result, South Africa’s coal power plants are failing to keep up with demand.

2022 saw record levels of load-shedding, with scheduled outages that sometimes lasted up to 12 hours a day. This has sparked a renewed debate on the transition to cleaner energy.

Just Energy Transition Partnership

At COP26 in Glasgow, a group of wealthy nations promised $8.5bn to South Africa to aid its green transition. Billed as the first Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), the UK, US, France, Germany, and the EU have provided financing to help the country shift away from coal.

However, the JETP has dredged up a number of issues. For example, as Climate Home News revealed in October 2022, contributing countries are providing 97% of this funding as loans. Naturally, these loans will serve to add to the country’s debt, which stands at 73% of its GDP.

Of course, as the Canary has previously pointed out, fossil fuel infrastructure itself has also played a part in burdening countries with this unjust debt. Notably, wealthy nations financing the JETP have previously part-funded a number of South Africa’s coal-fired power plants. This includes the shoddily designed Medupi and Kusile coal-fired power stations, which have been partially responsible for ongoing rolling black-outs.

Moreover, as its name suggests, nations intend for the JETP to aid communities in their shift away from fossil fuels. Despite this, a separate report by Climate Home News identified how the government has so far failed to inform coal worker communities of available reskilling programmes.

So while these nations have helped cement coal carbon lock-in in South Africa, their JETP loans are still locking the country and its communities out of a just shift to renewables.

‘Timely decommissioning’

As a result of the load-shedding crisis, earlier in 2023 the country’s electricity minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa announced plans to reschedule the decommissioning of some of the country’s power plants. In addition, he suggested refurbishing others.

However, the CREA study argued that “timely decommissioning” would be needed to:

reduce total operating and maintenance costs

Moreover, the study’s estimates for potential air pollution deaths has brought the need for South Africa’s green and just transition into ever sharper relief.

Feature image via Caracal Rooikat/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Additional reporting via Agence France-Presse

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