It’s a sweltering day in the industrial town of Sasolburg and Madisema Mafata constantly tries to wipes away the sweat that runs down her face and neck.
But it’s not just the heat that exhausts the mother of four: the chronic asthma she suffers from makes her life unbearable.
“I can’t do anything,” says Mafata, who is out of breath after pushing open the large roller-gate outside her house. “I have no strength. I can’t even do the washing... I can’t work because I can’t breathe.”
She lives in Zamdela, a polluted township neighbouring a vast refinery run by petrochemical giant Sasol in the northern Free State town.
“I was healthy before I came here in 2014,” says the unemployed 47-year-old as she shows her daily medication: three asthma pumps, her pills for high blood pressure and her heart disease medication. “It’s horrible to live like this.”
Mafata is not alone. “There are many people who are sick like this in Zamdela,” says Mduduzi Tshabalala of the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (Veja), of the dirty, toxic air its residents are forced to breathe.
As the Vaal Triangle’s biggest polluter, according to Veja, Sasol needs to “redress” the ecological and health impacts its operations have caused. “We want them to acknowledge they’re causing this and to take responsibility.”
About 200km away in Secunda, Solomon Mthimkhulu tells how he, too, battles to breathe. “Sometimes, I can’t sleep because my chest is closed from the dirty air from Sasol,” says the 63-year-old gesturing in the direction of Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant neighbouring eMbalenhle township, where he lives.
He struggles to find the R100 a month for his asthma medication.
“Too many people in eMbalenhle are sick with asthma, sinusitis, red eyes and rashes,” says volunteer activist Bongile Maziya pointing to her blood-red eyes.
“Sasol hasn’t taken care of the people here - that’s why we are crying. We need clean air to breathe.”
Sasol is the country’s second biggest polluter after Eskom and globally, its Secunda facility is the world’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).
Yesterday, as thousands of South Africans joined millions of children, young people and adults in global climate strikes ahead of the UN’s Climate Action Summit in New York on Monday, Sasol was the national target for a climate strike. The Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC) and the SA Food Sovereignty Campaign led a human chain for climate justice at the company’s Sandton headquarters, describing it as a “carbon criminal”.
“For over 20 years, fossil fuel corporations like Sasol have been let off the hook and been allowed to continue extracting, burning and selling carbon products,” reads their memorandum. “This has been done with complete disregard of the climate science and lived realities of communities affected by climate shocks such as increasing droughts, heatwaves, floods and sea-level rise.
“There is evidence that intense tropical cyclones, such as Idai, are already producing more rainfall due to the warmer conditions.
“The 2015/2016 El Niño was the strongest-ever recorded and this has been attributed to global warming. This contributed to the collapse of our food system.”
"The 2015/2016 summer was the warmest by far, with the highest frequency of heatwaves, in the recorded history of southern Africa."
Last October, a major report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed the planet is one degree hotter since before the industrial revolution.
“We have 12 years to prevent catastrophic climate change,” read the memorandum. “We have to bring down emissions by 45% to 2010 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050...
“With current emission rates and business-as-usual pathways, we will surpass 1.5 degrees in the next 10-15 years. There will be even more catastrophe for workers, the poor, the most vulnerable and life-sustaining ecosystems. At a 2ºC increase or higher we will quickly become an unliveable planet.”
Sasol, along with other carbon polluters, is to blame for high levels of carbon and toxic pollution in Mpumalanga, the Vaal, Limpopo, North West and Durban," reads the memorandum.
“About 20000 people die every year in SA from air pollution. There are various respiratory and health problems, including cancers, in communities. Air pollution in Mpumalanga is regularly higher than Beijing and Jakarta, two of the most polluted cities in the world.”
For SA to achieve its net zero emission targets, Sasol needs to “shut down” and it must set out a just transition plan with clear time frames, “which includes climate debt repayments to SA, reparations to communities affected by air pollution and clear support for workers to ensure they benefit in the process”.
Ferrial Adam, a COPAC activist, says Sasol is working with North West University on a misleading “green coal” project. “We’ve said there is no such thing. We need to move away from polluting fossil fuels.”
Tracey Davies, the executive director of Just Share, a non-profit shareholder activism and responsible investment organisation, says Sasol’s current and historic impacts on the climate are significant: the company emits more greenhouse gases annually than many developed countries.
“Most of these emissions come from Sasol’s coal-to-liquids plant in Secunda. The company has not, so far, disclosed any strategy for significantly reducing its emissions, nor has it acknowledged the transition risks its shareholders and the economy are exposed to by virtue of its gigantic carbon footprint.
“Sasol still benefits from state subsidies. It’s involved in industry lobbying against the carbon tax, implemented from June, even though the tax is one of the weakest in the world. The climate-related risks posed by, and to, Sasol, should be top priority for the company’s shareholders," says Davies.
Leanne Govindsamy, the programme head for corporate accountability and transparency at the Centre for Environmental Rights and centre attorney Timothy Lloyd, say last year, Sasol’s total GHG emissions were over 67 megatons, more than the combined GHG emissions of the next 30 biggest emitters on the JSE that publicly disclose their carbon emissions.
“Sasol Limited has been identified in the ‘Carbon Majors’ report as one of the 100 fossil fuel companies linked to 71% of global industrial GHG emissions since 1988... Yet despite supporting the Paris Agreement, the UN Global Compact, and the Sustainable Development Goals, Sasol’s GHG intensity between 2014 and last year has increased from 3.28 tons carbon dioxide equivalent per ton of product (CO2eq/product- 2014 to 3.78 tCO2eq/t - 2018).
“Sasol has set itself a carbon budget of 301.7Mt CO2e over five years, which translates to almost no change in its current annual emissions.”
In a 2017 report, the firm indicated it had no intention of setting either an absolute or intensity science-based target in the next two years.
“This is deeply concerning because we are dealing with a company that is contributing massively to climate change and the global climate crisis but is taking little to no steps to reduce its emissions or present a detailed plan on how it will do so."
The World Health Organisation has confirmed air pollution is the world’s single biggest environmental health risk. Human exposure to toxic chemical compounds such as sulphur dioxide, heavy metals like mercury, and fine particulate matter, results in chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer, and contributes to strokes, heart attacks, birth defects, and premature death. Sasol’s operations in the Vaal Triangle and Highveld air pollution priority areas are in “areas known for extremely unsafe air”, say Govindsamy and Lloyd.
In early 2015, the Department of Environmental Affairs, through the national air-quality officer granted wide-ranging postponements of compliance with pollution standards - minimum emission standards (MES) - to both Eskom and Sasol.
“Although the department indicated that these postponements were granted to give these facilities extra time to come into compliance with the MES, both Eskom and Sasol have subsequently requested - and been granted - even further postponements of compliance.”
In June, environmental justice group groundWork and the Vukani Environmental Justice Movement in Action launched landmark litigation demanding the government clean up the “deadly air” on the Mpumalanga Highveld, home to 12 of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and Sasol’s Secunda plant.
In an independent study attached to the court papers, Dr Andy Gray, an expert in air and health-risk modelling, found these facilities together with the Natref refinery in Sasolburg, a joint venture between Sasol and Total, were responsible for the lion’s share of air pollution in 2016.
“When asked during its 2018 AGM about its operations in the Vaal Triangle and Highveld Priority Area, Sasol denied that its emissions alone caused exceedances of ambient air-quality standards.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible for a JSE-listed company, which has until recently, realised massive amounts of profits, to avoid responsibility for air pollution particularly in the Vaal Triangle and Highveld," say Govindsamy and Lloyd.
“One would expect a response which both acknowledges its role while also presenting a clear plan for addressing its impacts, including the health impacts on surrounding communities.”
Sasol emits more greenhouse gases annually than many developed countries. For example, 2017 emissions (C02 equivalent) for:
Spokesperson Alex Anderson says Sasol is “firmly committed” to playing its part in transitioning to a lower-carbon economy.
“We support the Paris Agreement and South Africa’s Nationally Determined Contribution. We supported the government in signing up to the agreement and our position remains committed to the goal.
“We are in the process of developing a carbon-reduction roadmap based on scenario analysis and will set out our carbon-reduction ambitions, which will be communicated at our November 2020 Capital Markets Day.
“Accelerating our climate change response to mitigate the effect of climate change and for the resilience of our business in a lower carbon future is a critical imperative for Sasol, with the aim of ensuring our business continues to thrive and serve our customers, employees, communities and other stakeholders.
“We use scenario analysis in our strategy formulation process to understand the resilience of our business, based on an understanding of global energy system fundamentals, including government policy and carbon economy risk.” In recent years, he said, Sasol had taken significant decisions to divert its growth strategy from further carbon-intensive growth paths “and specifically decided on no growth into greenfields coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids and in new refining capacity”.
The climate change report, to be issued by October 31, “will further reflect on some of the actions taken based on our early scenario and robustness testing analysis”. “Our overall energy efficiency has improved by about 22% off our 2005 base.
Improved energy efficiency results in reduced use of fossil fuels, and lower emissions.
“For medium to long term, we are focusing on integration of renewables into our operations and securing lower carbon feedstocks for our South African operations, taking into account the socio-economic implications when making these decisions.”
Sasol is a voluntary participant in the government’s carbon budget process and has a cap for its emissions for the period 2016 to 2020.
“Mandatory carbon budgets will also be set for the period 2021 to 2025. Additional information on these activities and progress to date will be shared in our climate change report and at the November 2019 annual general meeting.” Sasol says, over many years, its approach to air quality management ensures sustainable ambient air quality improvements. “
This approach has guided our efforts in investing approximately R2 billion a year over the past decade on projects delivering significant environmental improvements in South Africa… “While most of our processes will be able to comply with the future minimum emission standards (MES), there are certain activities where Sasol will be unable to comply, either with respect to the stipulated compliance time frames, or the specified emission limits.
“Sasol willingly engages and collaborates constructively with stakeholders in achieving reasonable, effective and sustainable MES.”