Heavy reliance on coal will lead to premature deaths, energy portfolio hears

South Africa’s future electricity plan with its heavy reliance on coal would result in thousands of people dying prematurely and cost the economy R33m in lost working days.

This was the submission to the Energy Portfolio Committee on Tuesday by civic rights groundWork during public hearings on the draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP).

The organisation said it had commissioned a study on the effects of coal emissions on health and the environment.

Premature deaths

The report, Coal Kills, found that just one form of pollution from coal, the fine particulate matter, could result in 2200 premature deaths a year. Thousands more were affected by asthma and bronchitis.

The organisation criticised the draft IRP for having no limit on carbon emissions and said it seemed that it was “oblivious to the immediate urgency of responding to climate change”.

It said energy planning must be about a rapid transition from coal to renewables, and the concept of a just transition must be embedded in this change.

The IRP’s reference to externalities took into account only emissions to air from coal power stations and did not take into account pollution to water and land from coal stockpiles, ash heaps and acid deposition.

Restoring the earth

“A rapid phase-out of coal will immediately clean up the air and create the conditions for restoring the earth.”

This was why the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change said that tackling climate change could be the “greatest global health opportunity of this century”.

The value the IRP put on externalised costs of coal pollution was much lower that that of the European Union.

“This means that European lives are valued 36 times more than South African lives,” the organisation said.

Renewables and jobs

“South Africa can create another energy future based on renewables, or we can go down tied to the old energy model based on cheap coal, cheap labour and heavy, duty pollution. It is unsustainable economically and is socially and environmentally catastrophic,” groundwork said. 

The South African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) told MPs it welcomed the fact that there was no new nuclear power in the draft IRP.

It said the High Court case by Earthlife and SAFCEI, plus the revelations from the Zondo Commission, “clearly indicate that the nuclear case was premised on flawed data and was part of a manipulated process of state capture”.

As the renewable energy sector developed, and costs continued to come down, the facts would show that there was no need for nuclear or more coal in South Africa’s future electricity mix.

SAFCEI said government data showed that the renewable energy had already created more than 43 000 construction jobs and more than 55 000 operations jobs in the short time that solar and wind farms had been in operation. More jobs would be created as more renewables were included in the future electricity mix.

Manufacturing sector

A socio-economic study by the Department of Energy in 2014 had shown that renewable energy could have a major multiplier effect to create jobs in the manufacturing sector.

“However the jobs and economic growth related to renewable energy cannot be maximised if the renewable energy demand is throttled back through the IRP,” SAFCEI said.

It said that its understanding was that the inclusion of new coal in the IRP was a policy decision designed to save jobs in the coal sector.

But recent studies, including those from UCT’s Energy Research Centre, has shown that this was simply likely to “delay the inevitable” and at the same time run the risk of undermining the development of the renewable energy industry and the associated jobs creation.

Climate change was a reality and society would have to adapt to changes in climate never experienced before. South Africa’s energy system needed to take this into account, rather than focus on a business-as-usual approach.

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