Tackling climate change and health together: South Africa’s new scorecard

This week, the Global Climate and Health Alliance released their analysis of how countries have integrated air quality into their national climate plans. The analysis recognises that burning fossil fuels is not only the leading driver of the climate crisis, but also driving a global health crisis responsible for millions of deaths globally each year. 

The Clean Air NDC Scorecard results reveal that for many countries, there is a glaring disparity between air pollution health burden and recognition of this entrenched issue in climate plans — a missed opportunity for people and economies. 

Jess Beagley, Policy Lead at the Global Climate and Health Alliance, underscores the need to stop burning fossil fuels to unlock the enormous co-benefits of clean air. “The Clean Air NDC Scorecard confirms the human cost of delaying the inevitable phase-out of fossil fuels”, she said, adding that emission reduction technologies do not address the issue of harmful fossil fuel air pollution.

“Protecting people’s health cannot be achieved by carbon capture technologies, which do not address toxic pollutants and particulates, such as black carbon which also accelerates warming. The vested interests of fossil fuel companies and their influence over national and international policy processes are costing lives, and must be ended”.

South Africa’s scorecard

Based upon its 2021 updated NDC, South Africa’s scorecard contextualises the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) as relevant to reducing air pollution and improving health. The NDC includes nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons, among other gases, including national annual pollution prevention plans. 

South Africa's scorecard: How far does it consider air pollution in climate plans?

South Africa’s Clean Air NDC Scorecard 2023. Source: The Global Climate and Health Alliance, 2023

Scorecard key takeaways

  • Air pollution and health impacts are somewhat considered within South Africa’s plans. However, given the acute air pollution crisis in the country, particularly in coal pollution hotspot areas, there is plenty of room for improvement to ensure citizens’ health and well-being are prioritised and protected within its climate plans, and plans are financed accordingly.
  • Importantly, South Africa’s recent plans to delay decommissioning many of its aged and polluting coal plans conflicts with its IRP. Therefore, the scorecard likely represents an overly optimistic view of the health considerations of South Africa’s climate plans. For example, analysis by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found these plans will lead to a projected 15,300 excess air pollution-related deaths and total economic costs of R345 billion, vs the IRP decommissioning timeline analysed here.
  • In terms of climate impact, South Africa’s climate plans are rated as “insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT), aligning with a devastating <3°C of warming, due to the continued heavy use of fossil fuels including coal. 

COP28: The first health COP?

Air pollution from coal and other fossil fuels is causing an acute public health crisis in South Africa. While South Africa is considering air pollution within its climate plans, they do not go far enough, and putting these plans into action is a different story. For example, at present concentrations, it is projected that there will be more than 800,000 avoidable deaths in South Africa due to air pollution through to 2050. However, many of these can be avoided with a rapid and just coal phase-down and corresponding deployment of clean renewables.

The health impacts of fossil fuels, mainly coal, therefore cannot be ignored. Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, highlights that the upcoming COP28 is an unmissable opportunity to put air pollution firmly on the agenda and catalyse international funding as needed. “COP28’s commitment to be the first’ health COP’ will turn out to be an empty promise if the conference does not deliver substantive progress in tackling air pollution as one of the most tangible issues at the nexus of climate and health,” she said.

“COP28 must deliver robust progress to end all fossil fuel subsidies, as a way to unlock progress across the negotiations. We must redirect these vast sums, which currently inflict enormous damage on both climate and health, to accelerate mitigation actions and a just transition aligned with the Paris Agreement, including addressing air pollution and its impacts on human health”.