Eskom is the world’s most polluting company, says CREA

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Eskom is no stranger to controversy. However, is the state-owned power utility truly the world’s most polluting company?

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) explains that data analysis by CREA finds that South Africa’s Eskom has become the largest emitter of health-harming sulfur dioxide in the world.

In fact, CREA states that Eskom’s emissions surpass the total power sector emissions of any country in the world except for India.

It must be noted, CREA is an independent research organisation focused on revealing the trends, causes, and health impacts, as well as the solutions to air pollution. 

The organisation uses scientific data, research, and evidence to support the efforts of governments, companies, and campaigning organisations worldwide in their efforts to move towards clean energy and clean air.

According to CREA, Eskom’s emissions contribute to high levels of ambient air pollution and air pollution-related deaths in South Africa. This being responsible for approximately 2,200 deaths annually, according to a study by air pollution expert Mike Holland.

Most of these deaths are apparently due to SO2 emissions, which form deadly PM2.5 particles once released into the air.

However, the research organisation claims Eskom has been lobbying against even the most rudimentary requirements to curb its SO2 pollution. 

As a result, the company has now become the worst SO2 emitting power company in the world. Eskom also emits more SO2 than the entire power sector of the EU and US, or the US and China, combined.

Eskom's sulpher dioxide emissions in 2019 exceeded those from the power sectors from each of the world's three largest economies. Eskom's emissions are shown for FY 2019-2020

In the CREA report, lead analyst Lauri Myllyvirta explains the following:

Identifying the largest emitters

Eskom’s 15 coal power plants (44 GW) emitted 1,600 thousand tonnes (kt) of SO2 in FY 2020-21, based on Eskom’s Integrated Report.

Based on the EDGAR emissions database, the six economies with the highest power sector SO2 emissions in 2015 were India, United States, China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the European Union.

Out of these six emitters, the U.S., EU and China have realised dramatic emissions reductions since then. 

India remains the largest polluter, and it is a tight race still between South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

In the report, Myllyvirta states, “However, our analysis of emissions data from each of these countries shows that by 2019, Eskom had become the world’s most polluting power company measured by SO2 emissions.”

Looking at China, a country known for its mass production and productivity.

It must be noted; China has carried out a massive retrofit program. Installing cutting-edge desulfurisation equipment on its entire fleet of coal-fired power plants, more than 20 times as large as that of South Africa. All this in just a decade.

As a result, SO2 emissions from the power sector fell from a massive 13 million tonnes in 2006 to 2 million tonnes in 2015, below South Africa’s level.

According to CREA, equipment was upgraded or replaced during the past five years to reach so-called “ultralow” emissions levels at more than 90% of the fleet, delivering a further 60% reduction to 780 kt in 2020.

The largest coal power plant operator in the country, China Huaneng, emitted 26 kt from 73 GW of coal-fired capacity and 390 TWh generated, based on the average emissions of 67mg/kWh reported in the company’s social responsibility report.

This is less than 2% of Eskom’s emissions, from a fleet almost twice as large. Per unit of power produced, Eskom’s emissions are more than 100 times as high. The second-largest coal power plant operator in the country, China Energy, reported 18 kt of SO2 emissions from an installed capacity of 52 GW and generation of 300 TWh.

There are understandable doubts about emissions data reported by companies, but the dramatic reductions in SO2 (and NOx) emissions from coal-fired power plants in China can be validated using satellite data. Similar research has validated the reductions in the EU.

Looking at India

The IEA estimated India’s power sector SO2 emissions at a towering 4,300 kt in 2019. This, entirely due to coal-burning. Like South Africa, almost all of the country’s coal power plants run without any sulfur emissions controls, although the country is slowly working to implement emissions rules passed in 2015.

However, Indian coal is much lower in sulfur than South African coal, meaning that despite having more than five times as much coal-fired capacity, the emissions are “only” twice as high. For the same reason, Indonesia, another country with a considerable coal-fired power generating fleet entirely lacking SO2 emissions controls, didn’t even rank in the top 6.

Furthermore, dozens of different firms operate India’s coal-fired capacity, the largest of which is NTPC, with a share of 21% of installed capacity. This means that even the largest emitter in India falls far short of Eskom in terms of tons of SO2 spewed into the air.

To read CREA’s full analysis, download it here.

Considering the findings by CREA, what are your thoughts? 

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