Fresh air activism in SA

“Beat air pollution” is the theme for World Environment Day 2019, hosted by the United Nations (UN). Every year on 5 June, World Environment Day draws attention to environmental issues that need urgent intervention.

Nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, says the UN. Air pollution is identified as the most important health issue of our time, causing one in nine deaths globally and an estimated seven million premature deaths every year. Apart from causing respiratory diseases, air pollution is a major cause of heart attacks, lung cancer and stroke in people. Air pollution also harms the natural environment, decreasing the oxygen supply in oceans, making it harder for plants to grow and contributing to climate change.

Air pollution is preventable. Solutions are known and can be implemented. The world needs to act now, reiterates the UN.

Locally, in South Africa, which has a heavy reliance on coal-fired power, the problem of air pollution is particularly acute.

Air pollution from Eskom coal-fired power stations kills more than 2 200 South Africans every year, and causes thousands of cases of bronchitis and asthma in adults and children annually,” says the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) quoting a 2017 report by UK-based air quality and health expert, Dr Mike Holland. “This costs the country more than R34 billion annually, through hospital admissions and lost working days,” adds Bobby Peek, director of the environmental justice group groundWork.

There is important work being done by a number of organisations in South Africa to hold large polluters accountable for the damage they are doing to the environment and the health of South African citizens, and to ensure cleaner air in future.

Recent milestones in the fight for fresh air:

System Change: Standard Bank has been compelled by it’s climate-conscious shareholders to adopt and publicly disclose a policy on lending to coal-fired power projects and coal mining operations. Read more here at Just Share.

A victory: Attempts by the government to double the amount of sulphur dioxide (SO2) emission allowed by polluters in SA were withdrawn after litigation was instituted by GroundWork and the CER. Read more here at GroundWork.

Demanding answers: Attorneys from the CER and representatives of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA), registered as shareholders of ArcelorMittal SA, and attended the AGM to ask important questions in May 2019. Steelmaker AMSA is one of the top 10 greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters in South Africa and is said to be facing criminal prosecution for violation of its air emission license.

CER and VEJA asked for AMSA’s detailed plans on reducing GHG emissions, rehabilitating and remediating areas affected by pollution, and implementing the recommendations of its own Environmental Master Plan. Few answers were given (see some of the questions from the CER) and AMSA said that it does not have climate change targets.

Interestingly, a few days later, on 29 May 2019, ArcelorMittal published its first Climate Action Report, noting the company’s “ambition to significantly reduce global CO2 emissions and be carbon neutral in its European operations by 2050”. No word on South African operations, which got served on May 30.

Powerful potential: South Africa’s Department of Energy has requested for the National Energy Regulator of SA to license businesses to generate power and feed it into the national grid, which could lower GHGs from coal-fired power and speed up the transition to renewable power production. Read more at SAWEA.

Better late than never: A recent Supreme Court of Appeal decision confirmed that JSE-listed waste management company Interwaste was operating the FG landfill site, near Midrand with a waste management license that had lapsed. The compliance notice was issued by the green scorpions in 2016 but Interwaste had contested the notice resulting in protracted legal proceedings. So protracted in fact, that the company has since been acquired by Séché Environnement Group and delisted from the stock exchange.

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