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Pollution from Eskom’s failing coal fleet will continue to kill thousands

7 February 2023 at 2:32 pm

Photo: Daylin Paul
Photo: Daylin Paul

Research on air pollution caused by Eskom’s ailing fleet of power stations is unequivocal: if allowed to continue, emissions from the company’s fleet of ailing power plants will cost thousands more lives. 

 Earthlife Africa and groundWork (Friends of the Earth South Africa), represented by the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), have made a legal submission to the government appointed expert panel on air pollution, calling on the forum to consider the horrific impacts that Eskom’s air pollution has on people’s health and lives on a daily basis when making its recommendations.

The environmental rights groups have called on the forum to ensure that Eskom is not allowed to further postpone its compliance with minimum emission standards (MES) on air quality, particularly in the Mpumalanga Highveld region – an area identified as an air pollution hotspot.

Research on the health effects of air pollution caused by emissions from Eskom’s ailing fleet of power stations shows that, if Eskom is allowed to continue as is, emissions from the company’s fleet of ailing power plants will cost thousands of lives.

“This untenable situation illustrates why we need to phase out coal as soon as possible. Not only is Eskom’s coal fleet unable to provide enough reliable electricity, but it is also killing people and making people sick every day,” says Thomas Mnguni groundWork’s coal campaigner and a Highveld resident.

Recent modelling by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) shows that:

  • Under Eskom’s planned retirement schedule and emission control retrofits, emissions from the company’s power plants would be responsible for a projected 79 500 air pollution-related deaths from 2025 until end-of-life. On a cumulative basis until the end-of-life of the power plants, compliance would avoid a projected 34 400 deaths from air pollution and economic costs of R620 billion (USD 41.7 billion).
  • In addition, full compliance with the MES at all plants that are scheduled to operate beyond 2030 would avoid a projected 2 300 deaths per year from air pollution and economic costs of R42 billion (USD 2.9 billion) per year.
  • Other avoided health impacts would include 140 000 asthma emergency room visits, 5 900 new cases of asthma in children, 57 000 preterm births, 35.0 million days of work absence, and 50 000 years lived with disability.
  • Requiring the application of best available control technology at all plants, instead of the current, weak MES, by 2030, would avoid 57 000 deaths from air pollution and economic costs of R1, 000 billion (USD 68.0 billion) compared to the Eskom plan, ERP 2022.

The Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment appointed the National Environmental Consultative Advisory Forum in August 2022 to advise her on pending appeals by Eskom and by civil society groups regarding Eskom’s applications for postponement and suspension of compliance with air pollution standards.

This follows the 2021 decisions by the National Air Quality Officer refusing a number of Eskom’s applications for further postponements from compliance with the MES air pollution standards. Eskom has said that for the majority of its stations it does not plan to retrofit its power stations by the deadline to meet the standards – due to costs and capacity constraints.

“Eskom has known about these pollution standards for over 10 years. It has consistently sought to avoid compliance and deferred the necessary steps to reduce dangerous air pollutant emissions,” says Mnguni. “Now Eskom says that it cannot comply with these standards and that compliance would mean further harmful loadshedding. Eskom is asking people to choose between their and their families’ health and keeping the lights on. This is unacceptable,” he says.

The legal submission relies on external health-based modelling and evidence, as well as government’s own reports on health impacts and costs of air pollution in industrial areas like the Highveld where the majority of Eskom stations are based. The submission says the following:

  • There are cleaner energy options and various sulphur dioxide emission reduction strategies available to Eskom.
  • The magnitude of the health impacts of non-compliance and the associated costs necessitate compliance with the standards by Eskom.
  • Eskom has a poor track record of compliance even with its existing weak licence standards. Between April 2021 and March 2022, it exceeded its licence limits 2 309 times. By the requirements set under SA’s air quality laws, Eskom should not even have licence to operate, let alone be granted lenience for compliance with standards.
  • The law is clear on what is required, and there is very limited flexibility available to the Minister on decisions that can be made in regard to these appeals.

The forum was also tasked with conducting an extensive consultative process with key interested and affected parties to assess and present all significant relevant research and analysis in a public forum for review and interrogation, and to report to the Minister on the outcome.

The forum held a public consultative process in November 2022 and invited comments on the applications for postponement and suspension of compliance with air pollution standards. The

Forum will be hosting a civil society engagement on 14 February 2023.

The forum is expected to submit a comprehensive report to the Minister on the outcome of the consultative process in July 2023.


“Eskom should be looking to cleaner energy technology alternatives urgently. The health effects of Eskom’s noncompliance are clear. People cannot pay for Eskom’s failure to plan with their lives and well-being.” says Earthlife Africa’s Thabo Sibeko

“We know that there are socio-economic implications related to the closure of the coal plants and the retrofitting of power stations, but it is imperative that Eskom and industry comply with health standards that protect communities and are essential for guaranteeing the constitutional right to a safe and healthy environment. Their negligence and inaction should not be rewarded by allowing them to further harm communities. Eskom should utilise the opportunity to bring clean renewable energy alternatives online urgently,” says groundWork’s Rico Euripidou.

The Deadly Air judgment held that the section 24 right to an environment that is not harmful to health and wellbeing is immediately realisable. There is limited flexibility in the recommendations that the Forum can make to the Minister as the law is quite clear that compliance with the air pollutions standards is not negotiable,” says CER Attorney Ntombi Maphosa.




Health impacts of Eskom’s non-compliance with minimum emissions standards