No April Fools – South Africa weakens SO2 pollution limits
By Nicole Rodel
South Africa’s climate criminals have been handed another victory on a silver platter, courtesy of the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF). On 27 March 2020, Minister Barbara Creecy gazetted the doubling of the Minimum Emissions Standards for Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), which comes into effect today, 1 April 2020.
It sounds like a distasteful April Fools prank, but unfortunately, the DEFF is aligning itself with the fossil fools and placing profit over people. The pollution limit for SO2 has been doubled from 500mg per normal cubic meter (mg/Nm³) to 1000mg/Nm³. This change primarily serves South Africa’s biggest SO2 polluters – Eskom and Sasol.
This comes after the unlawful amendment to South Africa’s Air Quality Act in October 2018, when then acting Minister of Environmental Affairs, Derek Hanekom, first published that the minimum emission standards for SO2 would be doubled to 1000mg/Nm³ from 500mg/Nm³. This was met with strong contestation from civil society and environmental organisations, as this amendment was published without first holding public consultation as is required by law.
In 2019, environmental justice group groundWork, represented by Centre for Environmental Rights, launched High Court proceedings against previous Minister of Environmental Affairs Nomvula Mokonyane, and the President of South Africa to set aside this plan to double SO2 pollution limits – and won.
Mokonyane withdrew the provision, and opened the proposed amendments for public consultation for a period of 30 days during May 2019. However, here we are less than a year later, and while the Department complied by holding a period of public consultation, it begs the question as to whether engagement with civil society and their submissions made any difference to the outcome.
The original amendment gazetted by Hanekom – even though withdrawn – has still come to fruition, serving the interests of South Africa’s biggest polluters. On the other hand, submissions made by civil society and environmental groups have had little to no impact aside from the DEFF recognising concerns raised regarding air quality and the effect on human health.
Public participation in democratic processes is primarily aimed at influencing decision-making so that the outcome ultimately reflects the will of the people and protects their rights. This implies that public participation is not just a tick-box exercise – but in this case, it is evident that effective and meaningful public participation in theory does not always translate to reality.
While there is no obligation for the government to include all the comments received from the public, it is concerning that the DEFF merely finds it “regrettable that the challenges facing our country in relation to energy security and the state of the economy, have resulted in a slower achievement of the desired state of air.”
Section 24 of the South African Constitution enshrines that everyone has the right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing, and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures, that prevent pollution and ecological degradation. Public participation is crucial to protecting and upholding this right, when thousands of South Africans already suffer environmental injustice – and this latest decision by DEFF has deadly consequences.
Doubling the SO2 minimum emissions standards will result in thousands of premature deaths, by heightening the risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, cancer, and respiratory diseases; with these health impacts disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly.
This decision comes amidst the outbreak of COVID-19 in South Africa, which is more severe for those with existing respiratory issues. Around the world, satellite monitoring has captured dramatic images of a vast reduction in air pollution levels as business as usual has come to a standstill – ironic that South Africa is busy making provisions for the country’s air pollution to increase during this unprecedented time. The viral disease is also expected to disproportionately affect poor and marginalised communities, many of whom are at the coalface of the whims of polluting industries like Eskom and Sasol.
Once again, the government has wrongfully pitted economic development against environmental sustainability, at the cost of thousands of South African lives.
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