Health impacts of Eskom’s non-compliance with minimum emissions standards

South Africa’s Minimum Emissions Standards (MES) for combustion installations were issued in 2010, with a phased introduction where existing sources had to meet a more lenient set of standards by 2015 and a more stringent set of standards by 2020. Most importantly, these standards would require, for the first time, coal-burning facilities to install sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions controls. 

After the issuance of the standards, South Africa’s largest emitter Eskom failed to initiate the required planning and implementation of the emission control retrofits, and government authorities failed to monitor Eskom’s actions, leading to an impossible situation where there was not enough time to retrofit the fleet. 

Because of this, Eskom was granted postponements to the standards until 2025. For plants planned to retire by 2030, compliance with the standards was suspended. While the postponements were time-limited, Eskom made it clear that it did not intend to comply even after the deadlines ran out.

As a result of the failure to act on its SO2 emissions, Eskom has become the largest power sector emitter of SO2 in the world (Myllyvirta, 2021).

In this report, we project emissions, air quality impacts and the resulting health and economic impacts of air pollution from Eskom’s coal power plant fleet under four different scenarios of compliance with the MES.

Given the very large geographical area and population affected by the emissions, changes in Eskom’s emissions have major public health implications. The figures below show the projected number of annual deaths and cumulative deaths attributed to Eskom’s emissions under different scenarios.

In this report, we have further identified the following key findings in relation to Eskom’s non-compliance with minimum emissions standards:

  • Under Eskom’s planned retirement schedule and emission control retrofits, emissions from the company’s power plants would be responsible for a projected 79,500 air pollution-related deaths from 2025 until end-of-life (95% confidence interval 48,200–122,000).
  • Full compliance with the MES at all plants that are scheduled to operate beyond 2030 would avoid a projected 2,300 deaths per year from air pollution (95% confidence interval: 1,500 – 3,400) and economic costs of R42 billion (USD2.9 billion) per year (95% confidence interval: R26 – 60bn), starting from 2025.
  • Eskom’s retrofit plan only realizes one quarter of the health benefits associated with compliance with the MES, due to the almost complete failure to address SO2 emissions.
  • On a cumulative basis until the end-of-life of the power plants, compliance would avoid a projected 34,400 deaths from air pollution (95% confidence interval: 21,600 – 49,300) and economic costs of R620 bn (USD 41.7 bn; 95% confidence interval: R390 – 870). Other  avoided health impacts would include 140,000 asthma emergency room visits, 5,900 new cases of asthma in children, 57,000 preterm births, 35.0 million days of work absence, and 50,000 years lived with disability. 
  • If the compliance deadline was delayed to 2030 instead of 2025, compliance with the emission limits would still avoid a projected 26,400 deaths from air pollution (95% confidence interval: 16,600 – 37,700) and economic costs of R470bn (USD 32.0 bn; 95% confidence interval: R300 – 660bn).
  • Requiring the application of best available control technology at all plants, instead of the current MES, by 2030, would avoid 57,000 deaths from air pollution (95% confidence interval: 34,800 – 86,500) and economic costs of R1,000bn (USD 68.0 bn; 95% confidence interval: R610 – 1,500bn) compared to the Eskom plan.

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