Satellite data from the Tropomi instrument has revealed Mpumalanga as a global pollution hotspot.
The Dutch-designed Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument has revealed that the province, which hosts a number of Eskom power plants, has the lowest air quality in South Africa and is among the worst in the world for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions.
"It has been reported before that the Witbank area has the world's dirtiest air, and now this analysis of high-tech satellite data has revealed that the Mpumalanga province is the global number one hotspot for NO2 emissions," said Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa.
The World Health Organisation attributes 4.2 million deaths annually to outdoor air pollution and argues that in 2016, air pollution accounted for 7.6% of all deaths.
Several of Eskom's power stations are located in Mpumalanga. The company describes these coal-fired power stations as base load facilities.
Powerful coal-fired plants
While production at Kusile is rated at 4 800MW (megawatts) and at Medupi at 4 788MW for when they come online in full operation, the most powerful of the coal-fired plants is Kendal at 4 116MW in Witbank.
Eskom supplies 96% of electricity in South Africa and 45% to the rest of Africa.
"This confirms that South Africa has the most polluting cluster of coal-fired power stations in the world which is both disturbing and very scary," said Steele of the pollution data.
The satellite data indicates that Johannesburg and Pretoria are subject to NO2 pollution from the Mpumalanga plants.
The United Nations Environmental Programme warned that air pollution also placed an economic burden on countries through invisible airborne particles, known as particulate matter.
These particles are associated with brain damage in children, increasing healthcare costs and climate change.
"Because South Africa's coal belts are hidden from view for the majority of South Africans, it can be easy to pretend that they don't actually exist. The reality is that coal extraction and burning has devastating impacts on the people living in the area," said Steele.
"This satellite data now confirms that there is nowhere to hide: Eskom's coal addiction in Mpumalanga means that millions of people living in Johannesburg and Pretoria are also impacted by the pollution from coal."
The Tropomi instrument aboard the European Space Agency Sentinel 5P satellite revealed that between June and August 2018, Mpumalanga's levels of NO2 were comparable to those in China and India.
"Compared with many other countries, South Africa has relatively weak minimum emission standards (MES) that allow coal-fired power stations to emit up to 10 times more NO2 than allowed in China or Japan. Nonetheless, the majority of Eskom's ancient and highly polluting coal-fired power stations do not comply with the MES," Greenpeace said.
In its presentation to a Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs workshop in 2017, Eskom argued that it did comply with MES.
It noted though: "Power stations generally comply with the minimum emission standards at the moment, but from 2020 will need to complete emission abatement retrofits and be granted postponements to remain in compliance."
It argued for a number of postponements for its power stations and said its oxides of nitrogen had declined by 9% since 2011.
"Coal kills, and Greenpeace strongly opposes any further postponements from complying with air quality regulations and demands that all coal-fired power stations that don't comply with the existing air quality regulations be decommissioned on an accelerated timeline," said Steele.
The organisation demanded that the development of new coal-fired plants be scrapped and that half of the current plants be decommissioned.
Eskom argued that it has been driving renewable energy development.
"As of January 2017, Eskom has connected 62 IPP (independent power producer) projects as part of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) and Peaker programmes," wrote Thava Govender, Eskom's group executive for transmission.
"These 62 projects have cumulatively added 4 200MW of generation capacity to the grid. A further 620MW is expected to be added to the grid in the 2017/2018 financial year as the third bid window of REIPPPP projects are integrated to the national grid. The integration of renewable IPPs to the Eskom grid has not only contributed to the diversification of the energy mix but also to South Africa's economic growth."
According to data from Greenbyte, a renewable energy management systems manufacturer, South Africa lags far behind fellow Brics country China which has 188 232MW of wind power capacity and 106 921MW of solar energy capacity.
The company highlighted its flagship Sere wind farm which produces 100MW, but for Greenpeace, more urgent action is required.
"The government should also set up an action plan with concrete steps, measures and deadlines to make sure that air pollution levels in high-priority areas comply with existing regulations," said Steele.
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