South African court urges action on coal pollution


South Africa will have to act against the air pollution linked to the exploitation of coal, after an unpublished court decision in favor of environmental campaigners, a lawyer involved with the case confirmed to AFP Tuesday.

In the coal region of Mpumalanga (east), the air is the most polluted in the world with record levels of nitrogen dioxide, according to the NGO Greenpeace. South Africa is the continent’s leading industry and gets 80% of its electricity from coal.

In 2019, environmental organizations GroundWork and Vukani took the government to court for “violating the constitutional right” of citizens to breathe clean air, in the so-called “deadly air” case.

Exposure to toxic chemicals emitted by coal plants, such as sulfur dioxide, heavy metals like mercury and fine particles, has led to an “epidemic” of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and also contributes to strokes and premature births, the organizations say.

Air pollution caused between 305 and 650 early deaths in the region in 2016, according to a study presented by the NGOs.

In 2012, the Department of Environment had published a plan for air management in the region. The Pretoria court on Friday gave it a one-year deadline to implement it.

“The South African government is now forced to act,” said lawyer Tim Lloyd.

The state “has taken an unreasonable delay in preparing and launching concrete measures,” said the court in its decision, a copy of which was provided to AFP. The court recognized that the poor air quality in the region is a “violation of the constitutional right to an environment that does not adversely affect health or welfare.

Contacted by AFP, the Ministry of the Environment did not wish to comment on the decision, saying only that it would “study the implications”.

Mpumalanga is home to more than 83% of the country’s coal production and the state-owned electricity company Eskom owns twelve coal-fired power stations there. At COP26 in Glasgow in November, South Africa secured 7.7 billion euros in loans and grants to finance an energy transition.