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South African Scientists Launch Landmark Study to Quantify Health Impact of Coal Dependency

Published March 01, 2024
3 months ago

In an unprecedented move, South African scientists have embarked on a comprehensive study designed to quantify the deadly impact of the country’s reliance on coal used for electricity generation. Spearheaded by renowned researcher Caradee Wright of the South African Medical Research Council, the pioneering review sets out to scrutinize about 8.5 million death certificates spanning from 1997 to 2021.

This study marks a giant leap in the pursuit of understanding the health implications attributed to the nation’s 14 coal-fired power plants that furnish over 80 percent of its power. Notably, it is the first study in Africa aiming to circumvent the limitations of modelling by relying on the analysis of actual mortality data collected across two and a half decades.

Historical estimates of the annual death toll caused by pollution from Eskom, the state power company, have varied significantly. Prior modelling studies have suggested figures exceeding 2,000 yearly fatalities, whereas Eskom’s own assessments have recorded deaths at a considerably lower number of 330. Wright's study will now cast a new light on the actual human cost of coal-powered electricity in the nation.

South Africa holds the dubious distinction of having one of the most carbon-intensive economies in the world among nations with populations exceeding four million. Eskom, contributing to roughly forty percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions, sits at the core of this environmental and public health dilemma.

Support for this critical survey comes from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, part of an extensive $9.3 billion climate finance pact channelled towards supporting South Africa's climate change mitigation efforts. The study aims to connect the dots between mortality, pollutant emissions, and proximity to power generation facilities by contrasting areas around power plants to areas with similar climates but distant from such plants.

Besides the fatalities, the study will scrutinize morbidities, such as pneumonia in children under five and tuberculosis prevalence. These conditions are exacerbated by the immune system impairment that air pollution brings about.

With the anticipated release of results in mid-year, this study occurs against a backdrop where South Africa is forestalling the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants due to supply constraints. It also coincides with a period of heightened pollution from Eskom, witnessing particulate matter levels at a 31-year peak due to equipment malfunctions.

The study’s outcome has the potential not only to affect public health policy but also to influence the future energy strategy in a country grappling with the environmental cost of its energy choices. The world will be watching, as this initiative sheds light on the true scale of health challenges posed by coal dependency, potentially impacting global discussions on transitioning away from fossil fuels.

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