South Africa – ‘Draft energy plan would cut years off our lives’

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  • In its current form the draft 2023 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) for electricity published in early-January would provide few solutions.
  •  It would not solve load-shedding in the short or medium term, would not provide energy independence in the medium to long term, and would miss every opportunity to position SA as a continent-wide and world leader in cheap, abundant energy from solar PV and wind. 

But one issue the draft IRP 2023 dismisses as merely a “challenge to be solved”, is the long-standing, unavoidable burden of air pollution. All the draft IRP 2023 says is that complying with SA’s legislated pollution emission standards would require 16GW of Eskom’s coal plants to be shut down, and 30GW more to be shut down in April 2025 when new plant standards kick in.

Related news: South Africa’s draft Integrated Resource ‘Emerging’ Plan released for public comment

SA does itself a grave disservice by framing air quality as a question of legal compliance. Why were these pollution standards adopted in the first place, 14 years ago? It is because the pollution from Eskom’s coal plants (with other sources such as Sasol) costs thousands of lives annually, and causes illness, diminished lives and poverty for millions of people.

The University of Chicago’s air quality life index calculates that in 2021 the average person in SA would have gained one year and seven months of life expectancy if fine particulate pollution (PM2.5) were reduced to meet the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) guideline.

Related news: Horrific impact Eskom’s air pollution has on peoples health and lives on a daily basis

If you live in Gauteng, like 15-million of us, according to the index as at 2021 you had most to gain from getting the air you breathe to meet global health standards. On average, almost 3.5 years would be added to your lifespan.

In the Northwest, that extra lifespan you could have is just more than two years. In the Free State, 1.75 years. In Mpumalanga it is 1.61 years. In KwaZulu-Natal, SA’s second-most populous province, people would on average live 1.22 years longer. In Limpopo, just less than a year.

So when the IRP talks about “resolving the challenges around compliance” with standards, we are in fact talking about Eskom’s air pollution literally cutting short our lives.

Related news: Expect DMRE to try bulldoze South Africa’s IRP through before national elections 

While energy planning relies extensively on cost when charting pathways and determining the energy mix, the IRP makes no attempt to account for the fact that the chronic illnesses caused by pollution cost the state and private sector money, and drain the financial resources of individuals and families.

These costs from Eskom’s pollution were estimated in 2017 to be $2.37bn every year. The socioeconomic impact assessment accompanying the draft IRP 2023 makes no reference to any of the socioeconomic costs associated with air pollution. This is shameful ignorance.

Legal challenge

So how can the “challenges around compliance” be resolved?

Any attempt to weaken the minimum emission standards, already weaker than the WHO guideline and significantly weaker than India and China, would constitute a violation of the right to life and the right to an environment not harmful to health and wellbeing; it would also violate the legal principle of non-regression. Such a step would immediately be taken to court by environmental justice groups — and, based on court judgments to date, such a legal challenge will almost certainly succeed.

The only way forward is thus to reduce pollution. There are only two ways to do this: capture emissions by installing and maintaining pollution abatement equipment; or reduce pollution by lowering coal plant utilisation or shutting down the noncompliant coal plants.

Regarding capturing emissions, Eskom has said for years it cannot afford the cost of retrofitting noncompliant coal plants. It often cites figures of R300bn. If accurate, given Eskom’s financial position it is fair to say the utility cannot pay for this. There is also no possibility of using transition finance like the just energy transition partnership (JETP) for funding this, since this partnership depends on shutting down coal plants, not extending their lives.

Regarding reducing pollution, the only way to limit further load-shedding while reducing pollution is to add as much new generation as quickly as possible — and solar PV and wind (with storage) is the quickest, cheapest way of doing it. This is the rapid new build of solar PV and wind aiming for 50GW-60GW by 2030, as recommended by the Presidential Climate Commission after an extensive stakeholder consultation process.

Startlingly, in addition to providing for further delays in coal plant decommissioning the draft IRP 2023 would provide for just 8GW of new solar PV and wind by 2030 — only 16% of what is recommended by the Presidential Climate Commission. The reasoning for this proposed departure from the trajectory in the IRP 2019 is absent. This single recommendation condemns millions of people to shorter, poorer quality lives.

In variable renewable energy with storage we have commercially and technically feasible solutions, available at lower cost, to improve the air quality and thereby the life expectancy and quality of lives for millions of people living in SA.

These same solutions will solve load-shedding in the near future, and provide energy independence, and better health and energy security for all who live here — and for future generations. This is what should be in the energy plan.

Author: Melissa Fourie

Melissa is a climate and environmental justice lawyer and activist and a civil society commissioner on the Presidential Climate Commission.

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