Health & Science

A South African company emits more sulfur dioxide than anyone in the power sector

Eskom, the South African electricity producer emits more sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant causing acid rain, than the power sectors of the United States and China combined.

Eskom is the first power utility and distribution company in South Africa, the largest electricity generator in Africa and the seventh in the world. It provides power to 6.2 million direct customers and employs more than 45,000 people.

And according to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, it is also the largest single emitter of sulfur dioxide (SO2) of the power sector in the world.

Sulfur dioxide is an air pollutant mostly produced by burning fossil fuel.

It can form small particles and short term exposures may harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficulty. But it also threatens the environment as it is a source of acid rain, harming foliage of trees and plants and acidifying water.

The energy and industrial sectors (e.g. metallurgy) were on par being the first culprits of SO2 emissions in 2015 according to the International Energy Agency. About two thirds of the sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere is created by human activity, another third comes from volcanoes.

And in South Africa, about 77% of primary energy needs are provided by coal while some countries decided to move away from coal-fired projects with the No New Coal Power Compact. The country is also the fifth largest producer of coal in the world.

coal plant in South Africa
A coal plant in the province of Mpumalanga where most of the coal is extracted in South Africa | © Gerhard Roux, 2007

Eskom responsible for about 10% of SO2 emissions coming from coal

According to their integrated report, Eskom released 1.6 million tons of sulfur dioxide in the air in 2019. This is more than the entire power sector of the United States and China combined.

In 2019, Eskom was alone responsible for about 4.4% of the world’s SO2 emissions, including natural emissions from volcanoes, and 12.4% of all the SO2 emissions coming from coal, according to a study published by Greenpeace and the CREA.

For the CREA, this quantity is explained by the fact that Eskom hasn’t reduced its emissions, unlike many others. “Large power sector air pollutant emissions have made rapid progress in reducing emissions. Eskom has been stuck in place, lobbying against even the most rudimentary requirements to curb its SO2 pollution.

In 2020, a South African government measure forcing to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide became twice as less restrictive as originally planned.

In the meantime, the world reduced by almost half its emissions of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions, between 2005 and 2019.

Only India’s entire power sector surpasses Eskom’s emissions

According to the agency, the largest Chinese coal power plant operator would emit only 2% of Eskom’s emissions, with a fleet twice as large.

China, although with a fleet 20 times as large as South Africa’s, have drastically reduced their emissions in a decade or less. In 2019, China’s total emissions, including industries outside the power sector, have plummeted by 87% since their peak in 2011.

Only India’s energy sector releases more sulfur dioxide than Eskom, with a coal-fired capacity operated by dozens of different firms.

India’s power sector emissions are only twice as high as South Africa’s with a coal-fired capacity five times as large as South Africa’s. But Indian coal is much less loaded in sulfur than the South African coal.

In 2021, Eskom emissions in SO2 decreased by 7% compared to a year impacted by lower electricity demand due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and 13% compared to 2019. Eskom projects to reduce SO2 emissions by 22% by 2030.

Read more about South Africa

Emissions of Sulfur dioxyde (SO2) by sector and scenario, 2015 and 2040, International Energy Agency, 2019, Free accessRanking the World’s Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) Hotspots: 2019-2020, Greenpeace, Free accessMalaysia and Sri Lanka pledge to become carbon neutral as early as 2050, Newsendip, September 2021, Free accessEskom is now the world’s most polluting power company, CREA, October 2021, Free accessIntegrated results 2021, Eskom, Free access

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