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South African Court Urges Action on Deadly Air Pollution

Orders Government to Target Emissions, Uphold Right to Healthy Environment

The Kendal and Duvah coal plant power station on the outskirts of Witbank, Mpumalanga province, South Africa, on September 28, 2016. © 2016 MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP via Getty Images

On March 18 a South African court issued a landmark judgment declaring that Mpumalanga province’s unsafe level of air pollution is in breach of residents’ section 24(a) constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being, along with other constitutional rights.

Mpumalanga’s deadly air is a consequence of South Africa’s heavy reliance on coal-fired power generation, which produces pollutants linked to health issues such as asthma, cancer, and lung ailments. A 2019 government study found that “thousands of lives” could be saved in Mpumalanga if national air quality standards were complied with.

Last week’s judgment is the long-awaited product of a case brought in 2019 by groundWork and Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action (VEM), in which they argued that the government had failed to properly implement its own a 2012 plan to improve air quality in Mpumalanga, including failing to enforce air pollution limits that regulate large polluters such as the coal industry.  

The court highlighted that “due to its concentration of industrial pollution sources, residents experience particularly poor and dangerous air quality.” It held that “poor air quality falls disproportionately on the shoulders of marginalised and vulnerable communities who bear the burden of disease caused by air pollution, … including children, older people, and people with health conditions like asthma” and ordered the Minister of Environment to enact regulations to improve air quality within 12 months of the judgment.

Air pollution globally is a silent killer, which the World Health Organization links to eight million premature deaths annually, including those of 600,000 children. In welcoming the court’s judgment, David Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, noted that, “this precedent is useful not only in South Africa but in other polluted states.”

The South African judges’ recognition that a failure to address air pollution violates the right to a healthy environment may lay the foundation for many other legal challenges to the toxic air produced by coal plants, both in South Africa and beyond.

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