Mpumalanga SO2 pollution as bad as NO2, new study finds 

19 August 2019 - NASA satellites have found Mpumalanga to be a global hotspot for deadly sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions. A new study commissioned by Greenpeace India used NASA satellites to track anthropogenic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission hotspots around the world. 

The study found that Mpumalanga, with its high concentration of coal-fired power stations, ranks as the second largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world. SO2 is a toxic pollutant that can result in lower respiratory infections, increased risk of stroke and increased risk of death from diabetes. SO2 emissions also contribute to the secondary formation of the dangerous pollutant called fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), which expert research shows is causally linked to a number of severe conditions, including lung cancer. 

Globally, power plants and industries burning coal and oil are responsible for two-thirds of the anthropogenic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission hotspots tracked by NASA satellites. Oil refineries and metals smelters are the other major sources worldwide. This ranking of global SO2 emission hotspots demonstrates the need for stronger emission standards for coal power plants and industry and a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.

Lauri Myllyvirta, Senior Analyst at Greenpeace Nordic, said: “The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas is the largest source of emissions of SO2 resulting in disastrous air pollution and premature deaths. Clean energy could save billions of dollars in health costs and thousands of lives every year. It’s fundamental that governments rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and set stronger emission standards as they shift over to sustainable alternatives.”

Melita Steele, Senior Climate and Energy Campaign Manager, at Greenpeace Africa, said: “We are in fact in the midst of an airpocalypse. South Africa’s air is absolutely filthy, and data analysis consistently confirms this[1]. We already know that Mpumalanga is among the worst nitrogen dioxide pollution hotspots in the world. Now that we know that the province is also the second largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world, second only to the Norilsk smelter complex in Russia. We simply cannot afford to waste any more time by delaying industry compliance with air quality legislation or the transition to renewable energy.” 

This news comes at a time when South Africa’s National Air Quality Officer, Dr Thuli Khumalo, is considering whether to weaken the country’s SO2 limits even further[2]. Weakening the already-lax SO2 limits, would make these around 10 times weaker than the equivalent standard in India and 28 times weaker than the equivalent standard in China.

“Eskom and Sasol must not be allowed any more space to pollute the air that we breathe. In the face of overwhelming evidence that our air is toxic, South Africa’s National Air Quality Officer must show up for the job of protecting people’s health by enforcing compliance with our already woefully inadequate Minimum Emission Standards. Air pollution and the climate emergency share the same solution. Governments across the world owe it to citizens to stop investing in fossil fuels and shift to safer, more sustainable sources of energy.”

Findings from the report include:

  • India is the top emitter of SO2 in the world, making up more than 15% of global anthropogenic SO2 emissions, having recently overtaken Russia and China.
  • In terms of individual hotspots, the Norilsk smelter complex in Russia continues to be the largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world followed by Kriel in Mpumalanga province in South Africa and Zagroz in Iran.
  • There are 12 coal-fired power stations in Mpumalanga province in South Africa, making the province the largest SO2 emission hotspot in the world from power generation.
  • Saudi Arabia is the largest SO2 emitter in the Middle East with Makkah province home to the worst hotspots because of the polluting oil-based power plants, industries and refinery facilities in the region.
  • In Europe, Ukraine, Serbia and Bulgaria are in the list of the worst 20 SO2 emitting countries in the world. 
  • Australia still lacks any legal provisions to limit or reduce SO2 emissions from its power plants, while the U.S., China and Europe are moving ahead in restricting SO2 emissions through stricter limits.

Greenpeace Africa demands:

South Africa is clearly in the midst of an air pollution emergency, and Greenpeace Africa believes that these are the key actions that must be taken:

  • Absolutely no further postponements from complying with Minimum Emission Standards for Eskom’s coal-fired power stations in South Africa can be granted. If coal-fired power stations don’t comply, they need to be decommissioned.
  • South Africa’s National Air Quality Officer, Dr Thuli Khumalo, must ensure that there is full compliance with South Africa’s Minimum Emission Standards by both Eskom and Sasol, the country’s two biggest emitters.
  • Under no circumstances should the SO2 limits be weakened. Dr Khumalo should instead be looking to strengthen our Minimum Emission Standards.
  • An Air pollution action plan for Mpumalanga, Johannesburg, Pretoria and all other high priority areas, that:
    • follows the guidelines and maximum air pollution levels of the World Health Organization (WHO) and international emission standards for coal-fired power stations
    • sets up concrete measures and steps to improve the air pollution levels in those regions and makes sure that they comply with the air pollution standards within 5 years
    • introduces independent, regular and reliable air pollution monitoring, which is available to the public and informs decision-making  (including transparent data)
    • No new coal-fired power stations in the national electricity plan (IRP 2018), the cancellation of unit 5 and 6 in Kusile coal power plant in Mpumalanga and the decommissioning of 50 percent of current coal-fired power stations by 2030 in line with the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on 1.5°C.


  1. The 2019 NO2 report can be found here.
  2. Greenpeace Africa’s submission on the proposed weakening of the SO2 limits can be found here:
    2.1 Greenpeace Africa objection to the proposed weakening (doubling) of SO2 limits in South Africa
    2.2 Annexure 1: Air quality and health impacts of doubling SO2 limits
    2.3 Annexure 2: Final SAHU report on MES increase 4 July 2019


To accompany the briefing there is an online interactive map of the world’s worst sources of SO2 pollution, which allows further exploration of emission hotspots across different regions.

Access the Greenpeace Africa briefing on South Africa here.
Access the international briefing here.

Chris Vlavianos, Greenpeace Africa Communications Officer, 079 883 7036, 

Greenpeace International Press Desk:, +31 (0) 20 718 2470 (available 24 hours) 

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