South African government withdraws sulfur dioxide emissions changes ahead of carbon tax

(Corrects headline and paragraphs 4, 5 and 7 of this May 24 story to show government withdrew changes before court ruling.)

FILE PHOTO: Workers are seen near cooling towers of the Hendrina power station, located south of Middelburg, South Africa, July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa’s average temperatures are rising more than the global average and the carbon tax law aimed at slashing emissions responsible for extreme climate breakdowns is too little, too late, according to campaigners and the communities where pollution-related sicknesses are already a reality.

South Africa’s carbon tax law kicks-in on June 1 after nearly a decade of delays, and forms the centerpiece of the climate mitigation response of one of Africa’s worst polluters.

The carbon tax response falls short of emissions targets the country signed up for in the 2015 Paris Agreement, and is considered “highly insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker group.

On Wednesday the Department of Environment (DOE) retracted a change to minimum emission standards that would allow all coal-fired boilers to emit double their current allowable sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions.

The change had been challenged in the Pretoria High Court by Activist group Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), which said while the change ignored the Air Quality Act requiring public comment, worse was that it risked intensifying respiratory diseases and environmental degradation already rife in areas with poor pollution standards.

“We need enforceable emission reductions. But it needs to be more robust and take much stronger measures to deter big polluters, given the scale and urgency of the climate change challenge and how vulnerable S.A. is,” said CER’s Robyn Hugo.

The CER had challenged in court the decision by Minister of Environment Nomvula Mokonyane in October 2018 to double allowable SO2 emissions for new coal plants from 500mg/Nm3 to 1000mg/Nm3 from 2020 was “unlawful and invalid and (is) set aside”.

This week the DOE published a notice calling for comment on the mooted change. Communities have 30 days to submit their responses.

Samson Mokoena, a climate activist and resident near the townships that comprise the densely-polluted Highveld Priority Area, said he was disappointed by the decision to double SO2 emissions.

“So many people here already have upper respiratory diseases because of the pollution. We get itchy eyes, running noses, asthma. All because of the petrochemical plants and oil refineries and coal stations around here haven’t bothered to meet restrictions,” Mokoena said.

The Highveld Priority Area, a 31,106 km2 area south of Johannesburg overlapping three provincial boundaries, was declared a climate priority area in 2007 due to poorer-than-average air quality and high concentration of pollutants because of the type of industries operating there.

The Department of Environment had yet to respond to emailed questions.

Reporting by Mfuneko Toyana; editing by David Evans