Open Letter to Barbara Creecy: Death by Covid-19 or death by air pollution? It shouldn’t be a choice

In this open letter to Barbara Creecy, the Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, the South African youth-led environmental coalition calls for decisive action on air pollution in time of Covid-19.

Dear Minister Creecy,

The South African government has done everything in its power, in as short a time as possible, to minimise loss of life caused by Covid-19.

But what of the lives to be lost due lack of decisive action on air pollution from fossil fuel emissions?

In president Ramaphosa’s speech on April 9th, extending South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdown by a further 14 days, he said that “we are in a situation that demands swift action and exceptional methods.”

Yet you have announced that Eskom, Sasol, and other facilities with coal boilers will no longer have to meet the original amendment of the sulphur dioxide (SO2) standard of 500 mg/Nm3. Rather, they would only have to meet a standard of 1000 mg/Nm3. The Life After Coal campaign revealed this new standard to be “doubly as weak”, and that this 2020 SO2 standard, which “exists to protect people’s health and human rights” is 28 times more lax than in China, and 10 times weaker than India.

It has also since come to light that Eskom’s Kendal power station has failed to comply even with these limited provisions of the law since 2015 in respect of its particulate emissions into the atmosphere.

It is ironic that the standards demanded of SO2 emissions have been lowered at a time when a respiratory pandemic faces South Africa, and at a time when a direct link has been discovered between exposure to air pollution and a higher Covid-19 death rate.
The rolling back of these SO2 limits will further jeopardise the health of those with respiratory issues such as asthma, and make them more vulnerable to serious complications if they contract Covid-19. This will create an added strain on slender medical resources. The pandemic already threatens to overwhelm our limited supplies of respirators and medical equipment. Can we afford this additional burden to our health care system?  

At the time of writing this, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of 103 people in South Africa. According to a study conducted by the International Growth Centre in 2012, Chronic exposure to fine particulate matter (PM) from fossil fuel pollution accounted for 27 000, or 7.4%, of all deaths in South Africa in 2012. It is unlikely to have dropped since.

It is estimated that over a six year period the relaxing of the SO2 MES will cause the following avoidable health impacts:

  • 950 premature deaths due to increased risk of lower respiratory infections, including in young children;
  • 350 premature deaths due to increased risk of stroke;
  • 320 premature deaths due to increased risk of death from diabetes;
  • 560 premature deaths due to increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;
  • 720 premature deaths due to increased risk of ischaemic heart disease, and
  • 520 premature deaths due to increased risk of lung cancer associated with chronic PM2.5 exposure

Lowering the standards will also aggravate South Africa’s already staggering contribution to the climate crisis and the coming global shocks that will make today’s Covid-19 disruptions seem mild. Exacerbating droughts and extreme weather conditions means more unnecessary deaths.

In regards to the more recent charges against Eskom alleging serious environmental offences at Kendal power station that have come to light thanks to the Centre of Environmental Rights (CER): A Compliance Notice issued by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and headed by you demands that Eskom shut down two 600MW generator units – unit 1 and 5 – at Kendal power station. The original deadline for this shutdown under the compliance action of  10 January 2020, extended to 31 January 2020, has since been suspended by you while you “consider Eskom’s objections and application to oppose the Compliance Notice.”

The CER investigation reveals, however, that despite  Eskom’s  claims that the unit had been running with particulate emissions below the mandatory limit of 100mg/Nm3 after being re-synchronised with the grid in March 2019, Kendal unit 1 has exceeded limits by as much as 1312mg/Nm3, each month since the maintenance shutdown ended in 2019; and further that data presented by Eskom about unit 5 is a “gross misinterpretation of the facts”.

We find it strange that, not withstanding Eskom’s contravention of air quality regulations without retribution for all these months,  your announcement that they will no longer be required  to meet the original SO2 standard of 500 mg/Nm3, still stands.

The Covid19 crisis has also exposed the toxicity of existing air pollution caused by fossil fuels. In China, the lives saved from the reduced air pollution as a result of lockdowns surpassed those listed from the pandemic. This underlines a reality that has been in open sight for some  time.

At a time when the government should be doing all it can to help us resist this pandemic, how can increasing toxic emissions be an appropriate response to addressing a respiratory illness? Why are we not prioritizing a rapid and just transition to renewable energy, which has been proven to be the“least-cost, least-water intensive, least-GHG-emitting and most job-rich option” for South Africa?

As youth of South Africa, backed by a broad-based coalition of socio-environmental justice organisations, we reject this short-sighted decision which, in effect, elevates the importance of colonial corporate fossil fuel interests over the human right to life and a healthy environment. As Bukelwa Nzimande of Greenpeace Africa said:  “There is nothing in the world that can justify the government’s decision to approve a further 3300 deaths.” 

We call on you Minister Creecy to give equal weight to all our lives, whether at risk due to Covid-19 or air pollution, or the deadly combination of the two. To abide by the basic rights to a healthy environment set out in our Constitution. We urge you to  uphold  your original commitment to reduce air pollution limits to 500 mg/Nm3, and deny Eskom’s objections and application to oppose the Compliance Notice, whilst further to work with the rest of government to urgently prioritize the just transition to renewable energy. It will save lives while creating jobs and prosperity.

African Climate Alliance and partners:

Greenpeace Africa ; 350Africa.Org; Fossil Free South Africa ; Green Anglicans ; Amnesty International South Africa ; Princess Vlei Forum ; Earthlife Africa Cape Town; Project 90 by 2030; Extinction Rebellion SA; Goedgedactht; SAFCEI, Lwandle Hiking Club; Concerned Community Movement 

African Climate Alliance (ACA) is a youth centered affinity group calling for socio-environmental justice in South Africa. ACA organised three major climate protests in Cape Town in 2019 and continues to call for widespread action on the planetary crisis.

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