Johannesburg – In a groundbreaking ruling, a court has ordered the South African government to reduce air pollution in a coal-mining belt ranked by Greenpeace as the world’s most polluting cluster.
Mpumalanga, which borders Mozambique, is the hub of South Africa’s coal industry and boasts 12 coal-fired plants.
The air in that region is the most polluted in the world with record levels of nitrogen dioxide, according to global environmental charity Greenpeace.
Local environmental lobby groups groundWork and Vukani in 2019 hauled the South African government to court for “violating the constitutional right” of citizens to breathe clean air, in the so-called “deadly air” case.
They won the case with a Pretoria high court last week declaring air quality in the area “in breach of residents’… constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being”.
“The South African government is compelled to act to remedy the … breach declared by the high court,” the environmentalists groups’ lawyer Tim Lloyd told AFP on Tuesday.
Exposure to toxic materials emitted by coal plants including sulphur dioxide, mercury and fine particles, has resulted in an “epidemic” of asthma, bronchitis and lung cancer, the organisations said.
Air pollution caused between 305 and 650 premature deaths in the region in 2016, according to a study by an American atmospheric scientist, Andy Gray.
Government’s environmental affairs ministry in 2012 published an air management plan for the region, but it was never implemented.
The court on Friday gave government a one-year deadline to start enforcing the plan.
It “declared that the minister has unreasonably delayed in preparing and initiating regulations” to implement the plan.
The ministry said it was “studying the implications of the judgment” and gave no further details.
The most industrialised country on the continent derives around 80 percent of its electricity from coal.
At the climate conference in Glasgow last November, South Africa secured $8.5 billion (7.3 billion euros) in loans and grants from a group of rich nations to finance migration away from coal.