Coal, COVID-19, and Climate Injustice in South Africa

By Uyapo Majahana – Climate Reality Leader

Over the past decades, it has increasingly become apparent that delays in responding to climate change are jeopardizing human life and livelihoods in South Africa.

The mining industry, where the general consensus among many researchers is that it contributes to climate change, has been plagued by COVID-19. As of 3 September 2020, the industry had recorded 15,149 positive cases, and 161 COVID-19 related deaths – with the risk of a second surge looming as 338,264 personnel out of 450 987 have returned to the workforce.

All mine employees are screened daily before going on shift, however, most of the asymptomatic cases cannot be detected through screening alone. Their detection is only as a result of mining’s high testing rate, with approximately 47,121 COVID-19 tests performed as of early September.

Besides the health impacts related to transmission of COVID-19 in the mines’ set-up, coal mining also contributes to air, water, and soil pollution – and the climate crisis – which has further negative impacts on health.

According to Coal’s Assault on Human Health, a report by the non-profit Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), coal combustion releases mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and other substances known to be hazardous not only to human health, but to the environment as well.

The report concludes that these chemicals impact people’s respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, and air pollutants produced by coal combustion contribute to asthma, lung cancer, congestive heart failure, and strokes. Research suggests that people with these underlying conditions are at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Despite the negative health consequences of coal mining, it is reported that on July 17 South Africa imported coal from a Botswana-based coal miner Minergy, something which might prove to be costly.

The cost of such an embankment can be gleaned from a new report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published on the second of June. It finds that renewable power is increasingly cheaper than any new fossil fuel based electricity.

Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2019 shows that more than half of the renewable capacity added in 2019 achieved lower power costs than the cheapest new coal plants.

The report highlights that new renewable power generation projects now increasingly undercut existing coal-fired plants. On average, new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation, and auction results show this trend accelerating – reinforcing the case to phase-out coal entirely. Next year, up to 1 200 gigawatts (GW) of existing coal capacity could cost more to operate than the cost of new utility-scale solar PV, the report shows.

Replacing the costliest 500 GW of coal with solar PV and onshore wind next year would cut power system costs by up to USD 23 billion every year and reduce annual emissions by around 1.8 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2), equivalent to 5% of total global CO2 emissions in 2019. It would also yield an investment stimulus of USD 940 billion, which is equal to around 1% of global GDP.

In South Africa, studies show a renewable energy system could cut energy costs by a quarter, compared to sticking with the existing polluting coal-fired system. It would also create 200,000 more jobs, lower the cost of energy by 25%, save 196 billion litres of water per year, make the energy system more reliable and remove our biggest sources of air, water and climate-crisis-causing pollution.

Those additional 200,000 jobs are in the energy sector alone. Transforming the broader society to a zero-carbon, resilient future pushes the potential new jobs estimate above a million.

With the facts at hand, one might think that the South African government would jump at the opportunity to resuscitate its economy using green solutions since it is cleaner, healthier, efficient, cheaper and economically and ecologically sustainable. Yet, the government is heading towards the opposite direction. Before the lockdown in March 2020, the South African government had pledged to solicit new bids from renewable energy suppliers to support Eskom, South Africa’s main electricity supplier. It has since backed off citing a drop in the country’s electricity consumption owing to reduced activity as a result of COVID-19, and is still relying on unsustainable energy sources like coal. Despite this, South Africans abiding by strict lockdown rules were stuck at home and plagued by numerous rounds of load shedding.

Added to this, under the blanket of lockdown and COVID-19 filling the news, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries weakened the minimum emissions standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions in April 2020. Eskom, Sasol, and other facilities with coal boilers who had to meet the previous SO2 standard of 500 mg/Nm3, will now only be required to comply with minimum emission standards (MES) doubly as weak as (1000 mg/Nm3).

The Life After Coal campaign, a joint campaign by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, GroundWork, and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) presented research to the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, which showed that 3 300 premature deaths would be caused by the choice to weaken the SO2 standard just from Eskom’s coal-fired power stations, as a result of the increased risk and frequency of lower respiratory infections, stroke, and death from diabetes.

To put the relaxed standards into a global perspective, South Africa’s 2020 SO2 standard, which exists to protect people’s health and human rights, is now at about 28 times more lax than in China, and 10 times weaker than India’s.

While the government is dealing with unprecedented challenges, and trying to handle oversupply of energy sources, it seems unwise to rely on sources of energy and institutions such as Eskom that have to be continuously bailed out of debt and are riddled with corruption, and that also have led us to the climate crisis the world is in and contributed to South Africa being the 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the entire world.

It is time to embrace new ways of thinking and knowledge making systems that have for a long time been ignored. As things stand, I believe we stand to suffer more loss, especially for the South Africa’s majority marginalized population, if we continue prioritizing the unclean, unsafe, expensive, and unsustainable energy sources that do not consider people’s social welfare.

With this said, it is therefore each and everyone’s duty and responsibility to challenge the government’s policies using whichever means at our disposal. Why should we continue keeping quiet when policies that affect our health, economy and environment in a negative way are put in place.

We have been presented with the unique opportunity to shift our development pathway to one that is just, equitable, inclusive, and sustainable as we rebuild our economy in a post-COVID-19 South Africa. Days of standing aside and watching from the terraces while NGOs and lobby groups do all the dirty work for us are over. We need a Just Recovery now.