Government has a golden opportunity to improve public health in South Africa and mitigate global climate change if it drops plans for the construction of more coal-fired power stations and focuses more sharply on renewable energy in its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), says the Public Health Association of South Africa (Phasa).
Phasa chairperson James Irlam on Tuesday said energy was a major public health issue.
“It is an invisible killer. It can be deadly. Some 29% of deaths from lung cancer are due to air pollution,” said Irlam, on behalf of Phasa, a network of medical practitioners and academics working at the intersection of climate change, policy and health.
Irlam was speaking during public hearings into the draft IRP 2018 at Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Energy.
He said conditions like asthma and bronchitis among adults and children, were common, and were a "significant drain" on the economy as they impacted on productivity.
Irlam said the Lancet Commission had identified energy as a major public health issue in 2015. Health policy is seen as a key strategy for mitigating climate change and improving world health. The Lancet Commission has described how emissions that go up in the atmosphere come back in the form of health impacts.
“Health is the bottom line of climate change. What affects the health of our planet will affect the quality and shortness of our lives,” he stated.
“Rising temperatures and rising sea levels are affecting the whole spectrum of determinants of health. We are seeing that, in South Africa, with droughts and heat waves, which have led to heat stress, malnutrition and diarrhoea.
Irlam said climate change and health were being escalated during global forums. The World Health Organisation is holding its first ever global conference on air pollution and health next week. It says air pollution causes one in nine deaths worldwide and that it is having an increasing effect on noncommunicable diseases.
Ambient or outdoor air pollution, as well as exposure to smoke and dirty cooking fuels in households, have been highlighted as major areas of concern.
“Air pollution and climate change are inter-related. Acting on air pollution can help to mitigate climate change,” said Irlam.
He said a just energy transition would have an impact on both climate change and health.
Phasa and other organisations are advocating for an end to the use of coal as an energy source in South Africa.
Irlam said the United Nations has warned that the world has 12 years to limit the climate change catastrophe.
“Scientists say it is up to politicians to make that change. Tackling climate change could be the greatest global opportunity of the twenty-first century. Are we seizing that opportunity?” he challenged members of Parliament.