South Africa can expect up to 32 000 excess deaths due to delayed decommissioning of coal-fired power stations, meddling foreign cherry-pickers claim.
The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), based in Helsinki, Finland, is at it again. What South Africa’s energy policy has to do with a bunch of foreign egg-heads, or why we should pay any attention to them, is anyone’s guess.
Yet here they are, with a new report about how many people will die if we don’t do as we’re told.
I call them eco-colonialists, because they march into developing countries with their hoity-toity European standards to demand that they give up the inexpensive and plentiful fossil fuels by which the developed world got rich.
‘South Africa risks 15,000 deaths by 2050 if green transition delayed: study,’ read the Eyewitness News (EWN) headline.
That was actually only one of the scenarios the CREA examined. Its worst-case scenario predicts 32 000 deaths by the time the final coal-fired power station is decommissioned in 2049.
The CREA researchers, supported by the South African Centre for Environmental Rights, looked at Eskom’s decommissioning schedules for coal-fired powerplants contained in the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan and in Eskom’s own 2022 Emission Reduction Plan.
Then it noted that due to load-shedding, the power stations due to be decommissioned before 2030 would probably only be decommissioned after 2030, and projected a death toll from the associated air pollution at 15 300 over an unspecified time-frame.
It then considered that such postponements would likely cause knock-on effects, leading to the likely postponement of plants scheduled to be decommissioned after 2030, too, in which case they projected a death toll of 32 000.
The report also listed other negative effects that fall short of death, such as new asthma cases and preterm births.
Then, to lend an air of legitimacy to the results, it broke down exactly which deadly conditions (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, ischaemic heart disease, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, and stroke), as well as exactly which pollutants (fine particulates, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide), would cause the deaths they predicted.
The lead author of the paper, Lauri Myllyvirta, has degrees in both environmental science and political science. He is a seasoned activist, having spent his entire career since 2006 campaigning against coal at Greenpeace before joining CREA in 2019. The second author, Jamie Kelly, spent 13 years in academia before joining the CREA as an air quality analyst.
While these researchers considered the health impacts of air pollution caused by delayed coal decommissioning, neither thought it worth considering the health impacts of not delaying coal decommissioning.
All policy choices have consequences. When faced with a choice, good public policy advice would consider not just the negative consequences of one choice, but also its positive consequences, and the positive and negative consequences of the other choice.
With all the information at hand, policy makers can make an informed decision. A paper with only the negative consequences of one choice is simply activist propaganda.
This isn’t the first time CREA poked its nose where it didn’t belong. Six months ago, I wrote a rebuttal to another of their papers.
That column is worth re-reading in detail, because the argument in the present case goes along similar lines.
Postponing the decommissioning of coal-fired power stations will have significant positive consequences, in avoiding costly load-shedding which is hampering South Africa’s economic growth and suppressing living standards.
By contrast, while it is true that decommissioning coal-fired power stations faster will reduce the health effects of the outdoor air pollution they cause, they will likely also cause even greater electricity price increases than we have seen to date.
A combination of higher electricity prices and worse load-shedding will force more South Africans to rely upon burning wood, paraffin and coal, indoors, for heating and cooking purposes.
This causes ‘swirling pawls of thick choking smoke’, to quote the Strategy to Address Air Pollution in Dense Low-Income Settlements, Gazetted in 2018. This in turn leads to a ‘double burden’ of ‘poverty and illness’, which further reduces productivity, which ‘reinforces the poverty cycle’.
Indoor air pollution
Indoor air pollution, which is as toxic as cigarette smoke or outdoor industrial pollution, affects some 20% of the South African population. This likely matches or exceeds the number of people exposed to the outdoor air quality ‘hotspots’ of which the CREA report warns. Indoor smoke also tends to be far more concentrated than the more diffuse outdoor air pollution.
In a 2016 report on indoor air quality for the Institute of Race Relations, I pointed out that acute lower respiratory tract infections caused by indoor air pollution accounts for the deaths of an estimated 1 400 children per year in South Africa.
Over time, that number, for children alone, will exceed the number of total deaths projected by the CREA paper.
Yet the authors completely ignore the awful reality of indoor air pollution in South Africa’s townships and rural areas.
And we haven’t even considered the health impacts and death toll of poverty itself. Slower economic development, caused by early, reckless decommissioning of coal-fired power stations, also has a death toll, since poverty itself is associated with worse health outcomes.
Poor policy advice
Any policy decision that threatens to restrict South Africa’s electricity supply, or increases the price of electricity, will increase death and disease due to both indoor air pollution and poverty itself.
The worst pollution occurs where the polluters themselves are the victims.
This makes regulatory intervention difficult, since the government can hardly criminalise poverty by prohibiting cheaper means of heating and cooking than using electricity.
But this also makes for a difficult activism narrative. With indoor air pollution, there is no big bad corporation to attack. In fact, only big bad corporations can help to reduce indoor air pollution, by providing plentiful, affordable electricity.
By ignoring consequences like indoor air quality, economic growth and living standards, the unsolicited public policy advice of these meddling foreign activists is very poor indeed.
[Image: Matimba Power Station, Ellisras, Limpopo, scheduled to be decommissioned by 2041. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matimbakragstasie,_Ellisras,_Limpopo.jpg]
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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