Health impacts of delaying coal power plant decommissioning in South Africa

South Africa is the 7th largest coal producer in the world. The burning of this fuel in coal-fired power stations leads to the release of greenhouse gases, which are contributing to climate change, and to the formation of air pollutants that are dangerous for public health. 

The health impacts of air pollution have been established through decades of research. Exposure to air pollution can lead to deaths among children and adults, through disease and many other long-term illnesses that have a devastating impact on individuals and their communities. In Africa, air pollution is the second leading cause of premature mortality, exceeded only by AIDS.

South Africa has a number of air pollution hotspots where air quality does not meet national air quality standards, let alone the WHO’s health-based guidelines. These areas, the Mpumalanga Highveld, the Vaal Triangle and the Limpopo Waterberg and Bojanala, were declared air pollution priority areas under air quality legislation many years ago.

South Africa’s power company Eskom has a fleet of coal power stations, 12 of which are located in the Mpumalanga Highveld, and two in the Limpopo Waterberg, which are responsible for most of the air pollution.

The poor air quality in these areas causes significant health impacts. In 2017, it was estimated in an independent expert study that air pollution from Eskom’s coal power stations alone is responsible for approximately 2,200 deaths annually, as well as more than 94,000 cases of asthma symptom days in children; more than 9,500 cases of bronchitis in children and almost 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis in adults, 2, 400 hospital admissions and 1 million lost working days a year.

While Eskom plans to decommission coal-fired power plants, the exact pathways that will be followed are unclear and many of the plants have had their decommissioning delayed. Currently, the South African government plans to delay decommissioning even further.

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has published this health impact assessment (HIA) to reveal the impact of delaying the decommissioning of Eskom’s coal-fired power plants.

Key findings

  • Under South Africa’s current Integrated Resource Plan, issued in 2019, 11.3 GW of coal power at seven plants is scheduled to retire by 2030. However, there are proposals to delay all decommissioning until after 2030.
  • To date only one power plant, Komati, has been retired although not yet decommissioned. We estimate that from 2020, when most units at the plant were placed in reserve, to 2023, the closure of the plant has already avoided negative health impacts including 220 deaths (95% confidence interval: 130 – 350) and R4.9 bln in health costs.
  • The decommissioning delays already introduced in Eskom’s “Emissions Reduction Plan” published in 2022, compared with the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan, will lead to a projected 2,800 excess deaths (95% confidence interval: 1,700 – 4,300) and total economic costs of R61 bln.
  • Delaying the decommissioning of all plants currently scheduled to begin decommissioning by 2030, so that decommissioning only begins in 2030 and beyond would cause a projected 15,300 excess air pollution-related deaths (95% confidence interval: 9,210 – 23,900) and total economic costs of R345 billion (95% confidence interval: 206 – 526).
  • The delayed decommissioning of plants scheduled to close in the 2020s would be likely to have a further knock-on effect on the decommissioning of other units later, as they would overlap with the scheduled decommissioning of other power plants, leading to an implausibly high rate of removals of coal power capacity from the system.
  • If the rate of decommissioning in the 2030s and 2040s is not accelerated from current plans (the current IRP and ERP), the further delays to the decommissioning of other units would multiply the health impacts of the delay to 32,300 deaths from air pollution (95% confidence interval: 19,700 – 49,500) and economic costs of R721.00 billion (95% confidence interval: 438.00 – 1,080.00).

Lauri Myllyvirta, Lead Analyst, CREA; Jamie Kelly, Air Quality Analyst, CREA

Africa, South Africa