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Why 32 000 SAns could die if we don’t switch to greener power earlier

  • South Africa needs to produce more electricity to end loadshedding and grow the economy.
  • But at the same time we also need to move away from relying on coal-fired power to fight global warming.
  • These seem like two irreconcilable demands, because getting energy supply stable again needs to happen faster than what it will take to build new environmentally friendly power stations.
  • Meanwhile, people who live close to coal-fired power plants will keep on falling ill from breathing in dirty air.

Zano Kunene explains why coal is king in South Africa — and what it means for people’s health in this newsletter. Sign up.

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 from the Finnish air quality nonprofit, Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea).

2050 is the year that countries, like South Africa, who have signed the Paris Agreement in 2015 have set as the deadline for when the world has to reach “net zero”. (The Paris Agreement is an international commitment by member states of the United Nations to curb climate change.)

By the “net zero” stage, the amount of carbon that is released into the air from, for example, burning fossil fuels like 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. 

That’s because, according to one of the scenarios in the plan, South Africa needs to keep its coal-fired power plants running for up to 10 years longer than when they were supposed to be shut down to keep the lights on in the country.

COAL IS KING: But what does it mean for people’s health? (Zano Kunene)

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

Eskom, our state-owned, national electricity provider, has to have about 70% of the electricity its power stations are able to generate actually available on the grid by 2030 (this is called the energy availability factor, EAF) to ensure that there’s enough supply to put an end to loadshedding 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 around 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 that 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’ too, 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 panel on climate change and get to “net zero” by 2050.

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

However, if South Africa keeps on relying 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 (often written as NOx for short) 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 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 health problems caused by air pollution, 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 like 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 likely add only 350 MW of electricity to the grid, compared with the 1 000 MW 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’s 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 [here] becomes harder each day,” Mahlangu told Bhekisisa in November last year.

How did researchers come to 32 000 deaths?

Delaying the shutdown of power stations that were due to start closing before 2030 by eight years, will likely push out the shutdown of other coal stations to a later date too, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) study found. In such a scenario, which is similar to the new draft energy plan, there would likely be over 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 like asthma cases in children, strokes or deaths from lung cancer and projected what the impact 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 likely 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 like 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.

Zano Kunene is a health journalist at Bhekisisa.