Greenpeace Africa
Eskom's Tutuka power station

Satellite data gathered and analysed by Greenpeace Africa from 1 June to 31 August 2018 has revealed South Africa’s Mpumalanga province as the world’s largest nitrogen dioxide air pollution hotspot.

Greenpeace Africa analysed the world’s largest nitrogen dioxide air pollution hotspots across six continents in the most detail to date. Further analysis undertaken by Greenpeace Africa points to coal and transport, as the two principle sources of air pollution.

Nitrogen dioxide is a dangerous pollutant in and of itself and also contributes to the formation of PM2.5 and ozone – two of the most dangerous forms of air pollution.

“It has been reported before that the Witbank area in Mpumalanga has the world’s dirtiest air, and now this analysis of high tech satellite data has revealed that the Mpumalanga province is the global number one hotspot for nitrogen dioxide emissions.

“This confirms that South Africa has the most polluting cluster of coal-fired power stations in the world which is both disturbing and very scary,” says Melita Steele, senior climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace Africa.

Mpumalanga is home to a cluster of twelve coal fired power plants with a total capacity of over 32 gigawatts owned and operated by State-owned power utility Eskom.

The satellite data further reveals that the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria are also highly affected by extreme nitrogen dioxide pollution levels which blow across from Mpumalanga and into both cities due to close proximity and regular east winds.

The average wind directions over Johannesburg and Pretoria in the last 30 years on Meteoblue show that for about 28% of the year, the wind is blowing over Johannesburg from either ENE, E, ESE, SE, SSE, and S which are all directions where the winds would be blowing pollution from coal-fired power plants into the cities. This means that plumes of dangerous NO2 pollution regularly cover these cities and their 8 million people.

“Because South Africa’s coal-belts are hidden from view for the majority of South Africans, it can be easy to pretend that they don’t actually exist. The reality is that coal extraction and burning has devastating impacts on the people living in the area. This satellite data now confirms that there is nowhere to hide: Eskom’s coal addiction in Mpumalanga means that millions of people living in Johannesburg and Pretoria are also impacted by the pollution from coal,” Steele added.

The list of the largest nitrogen dioxide hotspots in the world includes well known coal-fired power plants in South Africa, Germany and India, and a total of nine coal power and industrial clusters in China. Cities such as Santiago de Chile, London, Paris, Dubai and Tehran also feature high in the ranking due to transport-related emissions.

Greenpeace Africa calls on government for support

“Air pollution is a global health crisis, with up to 95% of the world’s population breathing unsafe air. South Africa is a significant global hotspot with its high concentration of coal power stations and its weak air pollution standards. The government of South Africa urgently needs to come up with an action plan that protects millions of people, instead of protecting coal-fired power stations,” says Steele.

Compared with many other countries South Africa has relatively weak minimum emission standards (MES) that allow coal-fired power stations to emit up to 10 times more nitrogen dioxide than allowed in China or Japan.

Nonetheless, the majority of Eskom’s old and highly polluting coal-fired power stations do not comply with these MES.

In 2015 Eskom was granted a five year postponement from complying with MES. In 2018 Eskom has again applied for postponements for nitrogen oxides for 16 of its 19 power plants (including 14 coal-fired power plants and 2 liquid fuel power plants).

“Greenpeace Africa strongly opposes any further postponements from complying with air quality regulations and demands that all coal-fired power stations that don’t comply with the existing air quality regulations be decommissioned on an accelerated timeline,” Steele comments.

“The government should also set up an action plan with concrete steps, measures and deadlines to make sure that air pollution levels in high priority areas comply with existing regulations. This means that no new coal-fired power stations can be included in the national electricity plan (IRP 2018); unit 5 and 6 of Kusile coal power plant in Mpumalanga must be cancelled; and 50% of current coal-fired power stations need to be decommissioned by 2030, in line with the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C,” Steele urges.

With hotspots across six continents, the satellite imagery shows the global extent and cross-boundary nature of the crisis. Governments must urgently step up their act and provide clean and healthy air for all, Greenpeace Africa notes.