Clearing The Air: How South Africa Can Tackle Its Air Pollution Crisis

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“The air is so thick with pollution that you can smell and taste it. I can’t imagine what it’s doing to our bodies. We feel helpless because we don’t have any other options,” – Thabo Mabaso, resident of the Witbank, Mpumalanga, South Africa. 

Air pollution, specifically particulate matter pollution, affects more South African residents than many realise. The negative impacts on health and livelihoods are immense and are felt most intensely by the poorest communities. The government’s response has been lacklustre, but there is an opportunity for civil society and businesses to contribute to improving air quality.

What is particulate matter and why should you care?

Particulate matter (PM) is a form of air pollution consisting of microscopic particles that can be made up of many materials, depending on their sources. PM10 particles are less than 10 micrometres in size (finer than a human hair), and PM2.5 particles are less than 2.5 micrometres in size, small enough to travel deep into our lungs and bloodstreams. PM pollution is significant as it is the leading environmental cause of mortality worldwide. It contributes to global warming, lowers crop yields and reduces solar power efficiency by up to a third.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently reduced its maximum annual PM2.5 concentration limit from 10 micrograms/m3 (i.e. per cubic metre) to 5 micrograms/m3, acknowledging the significant impact of long-term exposure to these pollutants. The South African PM2.5 limit, set by the Air Quality Act, is 20 micrograms/m3, with the limit tightening to 15 micrograms/m3 after 2030. Unfortunately, South Africa’s target PM2.5 limit is still within a range that the WHO deems harmful to human health, significantly burdening the public healthcare system and businesses seeking a healthy workforce.

What is the state of air pollution in South Africa?

An investigation of air quality monitoring stations shows South Africa has not fared well in keeping within its PM2.5 limits. The country’s north (Limpopo, Mpumalanga, North West and Gauteng) has been the most heavily impacted. This is where many coal-fired power plants, coal fields, refineries, mines, and heavy industrial processes are located. This area regularly exceeds the 20 micrograms/m3 PM2.5 annual limit by 10% – 125% (2021 results). These air quality results are more appalling when considering that 72% of only 132 monitoring stations are operational at any time, meaning that the full extent of the issue is not being accurately measured.

This poor air quality violates the South African section 24a constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. These effects will be felt most intensely by low-income communities that live closest to major pollution sources and use cheap, poor-quality coal for indoor cooking. This problem is acknowledged by Sustainable Development Goal 3.9.1, the aim of which is to substantially reduce the number of deaths from household and air pollution by 2030, particularly in low-income countries.

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2021 annual average PM2.5 concentrations per monitoring station, organised by province and priority area. Sourced from The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment.

What can we do?

The benefits of clean air are enjoyed by many, but the costs of improving air quality are concentrated in specific stakeholders with strong economic and political powers. The World Research Institute’s Jessica Seddon outlines a five-step cyclefor accelerating air quality progress in a local context.

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The five-step pathways for change for improving air quality. Reproduced from the World Research Institute.

Step one: Build awareness

This includes building knowledge of the negative impacts of air pollution, particularly PM pollution, on human health, crop yields and solar power generation. Civil society groups like Greenpeace have made inroads in bringing this into the South African public sphere through campaigns and civil lawsuit challenges of government officials. However, more effort is needed by government and grassroots organisations to collaborate with and advise nearby communities.

Step two: Organise demand

Organising demand means converting awareness of the problem into collective action for policy change. The Groundwork Trust has recently won its high court challenge to the Minister of Environmental Affairs in declaring the Highveld Priority Area air quality a breach of residents’ constitutional rights. Organised demands by civil society will also need to consider more than the impacts of air pollution – it should also focus on the sources of the pollution.

Step three: Focus on pollution sources

This makes it easier to demand action that produces cleaner air in specific areas. Establishing the chemical composition of PM pollution helps locate specific polluters affecting a site and determine the required terms to bring air quality to an acceptable level. Public universities and private institutions can readily take up this task, as the mining industry commonly uses the technology required. Pinpointing multiple sources of poor air quality will help prevent the shifting of blame between potential contributors.

Step four: Update policy and planning

We must acknowledge that specific processes contributing to poor air quality are embedded in South Africa’s economy and must be changed. Our policies must reflect the targets we want to achieve, the best ways to measure them, and how particular industries will play a role in realising them. The waiver of minimum emissions standards by the 2023 State of Disaster declaration for changes to coal power stations is a regression of the air quality goals we want to achieve.

We must invest in new energy generation technologies and plan our cities to focus on public transport and railway infrastructure. Large businesses can demand these changes by insisting on cleaner energy – not least to avoid carbon export taxes imposed by our major trading partners – and more efficient transport infrastructure. The atmospheric emissions licenses granted by all levels of government through the Air Quality Act should also align with the air quality goals that South Africa aims to accomplish.

Step five: Enforce and adopt solutions

This entails businesses, citizens and government ensuring that goals are acted upon, and violators are sanctioned. Companies and civil society can contribute to the monitoring and reporting of air quality using low-cost, easily used sensors set up in local areas. These sensors will allow for further investigation, moving us from “How bad is the air here?” to “What is causing it, and how can we change that?”. There are also new opportunities for companies willing to pioneer novel energy generation, transportation, and industrial technologies that support our air quality goals.

This five-step cycle will help us link the science behind air pollution (the size of the problem and its sources) with policies and actions likely to mitigate the issue. There are important roles for civil society, businesses and governments to play in air quality management, and in ensuring that residents enjoy an environment free of harm. – CDC

The 5-point model was derived from the World Resources Institute podcast on the political economy of air quality by Jessica Seddon. Information on World Health Organisation’s air quality goals can be found here (2014), and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s report on air quality in South Africa (2021) can be found here. More information on how air quality is monitored and the laws regulating air pollution in South Africa can be found in Government Gazette Notice 1144 (2018).

Author: Cassandra da Cruz

Cassandra is an Analytics Engineer | MBA candidate at UCT GSB
Disclaimer: The articles and videos expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Green Building Africa, our staff or our advertisers. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part Green Building Africa concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities.

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