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A new study released by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) has named Eskom the world’s most polluting company, having overtaken the US, EU and China.

According to the study, Eskom emits more sulfur dioxide than any other power company in the world in 2019.

Eskom, alone, now emits more sulfur dioxide than China, the United States (US), and the European Union (EU)’s power sectors. The utility is also producing more sulfur dioxide than the US and China combined, according to the study.

Image credit: Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

With China, the EU and the US having various utilities using fossil fuels to generate power but being overtaken by a single utility in sulfur dioxide emissions, one would wonder the extent to which Eskom is polluting the environment.

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The emissions are coming from Eskom’s 15 coal-fired power plants at which the utility has failed to install desulphurisation equipment to help reduce emissions over the past years. Installing the technology at the utility’s Medupi power plant alone would require R40 billion ($2.6 billion), according to Fin24. Eskom generates 44GW of capacity from the 15 plants and emitted 1,600 thousand tonnes of sulfur dioxide in the 2020 – 2021 financial year, according to the utility’s integrated report.

However, whilst some of the leading sulfur dioxide emitters including the US, China, and the EU have implemented various measures to reduce emissions, Eskom (South Africa) has taken little or no action, according to the study. “India as a country remains the largest polluter, and it is a tight race still between South Africa and Saudi Arabia,” according to CREA.

Sulphur Dioxide emissions contribute to high levels of ambient air pollution and to air pollution-related deaths in South Africa, responsible for approximately 2,200 deaths annually according to a study by air pollution expert, Mike Holland. Most of these deaths are due to SO2 emissions, which form deadly PM2.5 particles once released into the air.

China, which has 20 times more coal-fired power plants than South Africa, has managed to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from 13 million tonnes in 2006 to 2 million tonnes in 2015. The EU, which has 231 coal plants (128GW) in 2019 reduced its sulfur dioxide to 560 kt, one-third of Eskom’s emissions.

The announcement comes at a time when calls to retire the development and use of coal-fired power plants continue to increase to mitigate climate change. China, the biggest consumer of coal for power generation, has even announced that it will cease supporting the development of new coal plants abroad.

With the majority of developing economies including South Africa and India heavily reliant on coal, it would be challenging for coal-fired plants to be retired. Stringent policies, increased funding and appetite to do so by governments and utilities in developing countries are vital to reduce reliance on coal.

Find out more about the study.