Saving the planet? Sorry, we can’t afford that right now, says Gordhan

The minister of public enterprises says he's aware of the minimum emission standards, but we don't have R200bn lying around right now to meet them.

While delivering his summary of the Special Paper on Eskom that will function as Eskom’s recovery roadmap over the next few years, Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan admitted that the challenge of dramatically lowering South Africa’s carbon emissions in the near future is unlikely to occur because of how expensive it will be.

He said that although “clean coal” technologies exist, and can capture the carbon emitted by power stations that burn coal, this tech would need to be retrofitted on Eskom’s predominantly ageing fleet of generators, and the cost of this could be as high as R200 billion.

The embattled power utility already has debt of between R450 billion to R500 billion and has had to turn to the state for multibillion-rand bailouts just to remain a going concern. It currently supplies about 95% of all South Africa’s electricity needs, with renewable power sources having been added to the grid in this century from independent power producers, though most generation still relies mainly on coal.

As a result, South Africa is among the most polluting countries per capita on earth. It is the world’s 14th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and is responsible for about half of Africa’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The pollutants themselves also kill people, while the United Nations has called climate change “the defining issue of our time”.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that South Africa’s leaders had known since at least the beginning of September 2017 that Eskom’s emissions were believed to be responsible for an estimated 2,239 deaths a year when air quality and health expert Dr Mike Holland presented his report to them about it.

Eskom’s own figure of the number of deaths caused by its pollution came in at 333 a year, but it still wanted a fourth postponement of compliance (and in some cases exemption) from compliance with air pollution laws; laws it had known about since 31 March 2010 at the very latest, and which were set in a multi-year, multi-stakeholder process.

Holland told South Africa’s leaders emissions caused 2,781 cases of chronic bronchitis per year in adults, 9,533 cases of bronchitis per year in children aged six to 12, 2,379 hospital admissions per year, 3,972,902 days of restricted activity per year, and 94,680 days of asthma symptoms per year in children aged five to 19.

Gordhan said on Tuesday that it would cost between R170 billion and R200 billion to retrofit power stations with clean coal technology, which was the kind of money that simply isn’t available, though the power utility would update the infrastructure it could.

He said Eskom had nevertheless started to install clean coal technology “incrementally” in order for Eskom to eventually comply with “minimum emission standards”.

The minister spoke at length, though, of the need to create more competition from the private sector contributing to power generation, though denied this was part of any plan to privatise Eskom.

“South Africa over the next 10 or 20 years will be witness to a change in energy supply and the mix of energy supply as we go forward.”

He said global case studies had shown them that older, decommissioned power stations could still be made useful by incorporating them into renewable or more modern power delivery by building such generation capacity close to these stations.

He added that a trial of something like this was currently under way in South Africa.

For more news your way, download The Citizen’s app for iOS and Android.

Read more on these topics

business news Eskom pollution Pravin Gordhan

Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits