Picture: 123RF/ARCHNOI 1
Picture: 123RF/ARCHNOI 1

In a world that is now serious about climate change, environmentalists will have to review their prejudices. A controversy involving Eskom’s Medupi power station offers a cautionary tale about costs that may be hidden in the flood of cheap climate funding we are hoping for.

Ten years ago, bizarre environmental politics led the government to agree to spend R40bn to increase global warming and waste considerable amounts of scarce water, to little apparent purpose. Installing scrubbers to remove sulphur dioxide (SO2) from the Medupi power station’s flue gases was to cost R25bn; the remaining R15bn was for a pipeline to get enough water to Lephalale to do the scrubbing.

Preparing for those scrubbers is a condition of the $3.75bn World Bank Eskom Investment Support Project loan, which covered about 25% of what Medupi would have cost if properly managed. But, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reconfirmed, SO2 emissions from energy generation are one of the few human activities that actually slow global warming.

According to the IPCC’s sixth assessment report on the science of climate change, global SO2 emissions between 2010 and 2019 reduced warming by about 0.5°C. Without that “pollution”, the world’s temperature might already have risen by the 1.5°C the UN has agreed we must not exceed.

However, just because SO2 keeps the earth cool does not mean we should welcome its presence in the air we breathe. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that excessive concentrations are bad for our health, and so sets guidelines for maximum exposure.

There was little argument about the need for SO2 scrubbers at the Kusile Power Station on the Mpumalanga highveld. Air pollution from coal mines, steel mills and smelters, as well as Eskom’s power stations, was already a chronic problem and it was important not to aggravate it. But in the sparsely populated game farming area around Lephalale, Medupi was unlikely to cause harmful pollution. That would only happen if further coal intensive projects were built, a new Sasol for example.

So why did SA take funding from the World Bank that required it to prepare to install equipment that might not be needed? Since 1994 the government had resisted borrowing from the Bank because of concerns about the onerous conditionalities it often imposed on its clients.

But back in 2010 the economic crisis had hit hard. After the ambitious World Cup infrastructure programme it was becoming increasingly difficult to raise affordable finance. Involving the Bank could encourage other more hesitant lenders and, since the Medupi project was an SA priority, it was decided to approach the Big Bad Washington Bank.

That suited the bank; lending to middle income countries such as SA is its core business, and the Eskom loan was its first substantial investment loan to us since 1966. But even in 2010, coal-fired power stations were controversial and bank officials had to demonstrate compliance with environmental and social safeguards policies.

Graphic: KAREN MOOLMAN
Graphic: KAREN MOOLMAN

Ironically, climate arguments were easily dealt with. Medupi, the bank’s board was told, would reduce Eskom’s CO2 emissions per megawatt hour by enabling older, dirtier stations to be closed. Local environmental lobbies, fighting a rearguard action against the project, focused instead on SO2 emissions.

The department of environmental affairs could not introduce SO2 limits that would force Eskom to close many of its generators immediately. But the lobbyists supported a compromise that would consider stricter future controls, giving them a stick with which to continue beating Eskom.

That approach allowed the World Bank to go ahead with its Medupi loan, with the condition that flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) treatment be implemented if required by regulators. The bank’s language was careful: “Although the risk for human health effects remains low,” its appraisal report stated, “the bank believes that installation of FGD ... would be consistent with internationally recognised good practice.”

The consequences of this policy fudge are now evident as the department of environmental affairs and environmental lobbies demand that scrubbers be installed to meet new emission limits. The implications were recently explained by Eskom CEO André de Ruyter. One option would be to “use the funds for minimum emissions standards compliance to build renewable energy”. The other would be to spend the money in a way that “will not add any generation capacity [and] will consume significantly more water.” It is, he said, “quite a difficult balancing act”.

That is a polite way of saying environmental regulators are shooting SA in both feet. Even with all six Medupi generators working, the government’s monitoring reported that atmospheric SO2 levels at Lephalale met WHO guidelines throughout the past 12 months, with no unacceptable effects. Meanwhile, Eskom’s monitoring reported air quality breaches related to dust and particulates, not SO2.

This data shows where money for environmental improvement could usefully be spent. Reducing SO2 emissions at Medupi is not a priority now that proposed industrial developments such as an oil-from-coal plant have been shelved. The Lephalale boom has bust, property prices have collapsed and jobs along with them. The government’s air quality monitoring shows the SA priority should be to tackle dangerous pollution in poorer urban townships that do not have affordable access to electricity. Making less electricity, more expensively, will simply make matters worse.

But SA is not alone in its irrational focus on SO2. When the IPCC met to finalise its latest report sharp questions were raised about SO2’s cooling effects being hidden under the heading of “other gaseous emissions” with, among others, methane. Some participants justified this by saying SO2 merely “masks” the longer-term warming effects of carbon dioxide. But this also obscured the critical short-term warming impact of methane, a sensitive matter for gas producers, whose leaky pipes are a target for climate action.

The compromise was a confused headline statement that “reductions in methane emissions would also limit the warming effect resulting from declining aerosol pollution and would improve air quality”.

These maneuverings highlight an “inconvenient truth” that Al Gore forgot to mention in his famous 2006 film. Like industries and investors, environmental activists also hide unpalatable information even as they use climate change to promote their favoured causes, from biodiversity to bicycles. Fifteen years on, that remains a problem, as the saga of Medupi’s scrubbers shows.

In electricity policy, attacks continue on hydropower and nuclear power as environmentally unsustainable, despite contrary evidence from countries such as Brazil, France, Norway and others for whom these technologies are the foundation of zero carbon energy. The attack on SO2 also reflects opposition to “geo-engineering” interventions to keep climates cool and provide vital breathing space while economies and societies are restructured.

Meanwhile, SA still does not know how to maintain reliable electricity supplies if there is huge expansion of cheap but unreliable solar (and wind) power. The current option is imported gas, for Karpowerships or land-based power stations, at a price double that of local production from Karoo shale, if environmental lobbies had allowed it.

We will stagger on with coal, increasingly penalising our international trade, until perhaps Sasol learns to produce green hydrogen. But at least let’s not waste good money and clean water washing down SO2 fumes. Put it in the atmosphere where it can do some good.

• Muller is a visiting adjunct professor at the Wits School of Governance. As director-general of water affairs and a national planning commissioner, he contributed extensively to water, energy and environmental policy between 1994 and 2015.

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