Air Quality

Sometimes, all I need is the air that I breathe.1

Historically, 99% of the air that we breathe is made up of two compounds: nitrogen and oxygen. Argon, carbon dioxide, water vapour and several other gases in miniscule quantities make up the balance. That all changed when the industrial revolution came along, and our machinery, motor vehicles, engines and aircraft started spewing carbon dioxide (CO₂) into the atmosphere in alarming proportions.

At 0.0314%, carbon dioxide’s contribution to air2 equates to 314 parts per million. At the Manua Loa Observatory, 3 400 metres above sea-level in Hawaii, they take daily measurements. In February 2016, carbon dioxide measured at 402.88 parts per million,3 and that was up on the previous year – and the one before that, and the one before that.4 Given that, in 2013 alone, flights alone produced 705 million tonnes of CO₂ worldwide, and humans produced over 36 billion tonnes in total,5 this climb in the atmosphere percentage is not surprising. After all, CO₂ has nowhere else to go.

But smog6 is not the problem for climate change and our air quality. Methane, which makes up only 0.0002% of air,7 is considerably more effective at trapping heat than is CO₂.8 The thing is that airplanes and cars have little to do with methane. It is livestock passing wind – approximately 34% of methane emissions are from agricultural animals and their waste.9 And as the demand for meat consumption increases, so do the methane emissions. (In China alone, the rising middle class spurred a growth in meat consumption from 3.8 kg per person in 1961 to about 55 kg per person in 2013.10)

But, on this score, we have to hand it to the dinosaurs. Researchers have shown that sauropods, widespread about 150 million years ago, probably caused the first climate change. Their colossal vegetarian diets produced methane emissions at the rate of 472 million tonnes per annum.11

South Africa remains relatively low-key as an industrialised nation, but in 2017 we ranked 16th in greenhouse gas emissions, beating Turkey, Italy, France, Spain and Poland.12 So the National Environmental Management: Air Quality Act 2004 is quite timeous. It falls under the authority of the Minister of Environmental Affairs and provides for a range of measures, norms and standards for the monitoring, management and control of air quality.13

A. Listed activities, licences and exemption

The Minister has published a list of activities which cause atmosphere emissions believed to have a significant detrimental effect on health, social conditions, economic conditions, ecological conditions or cultural heritage – basically, the environment in general.14 There are ten categories:15

  1. To conduct any one of the listed activities, you must be licensed by the relevant metropolitan or district municipality. It is a criminal offence to engage in any listed activity without an atmospheric emission licence (provisional or otherwise).16

  2. It is an offence to fail to comply with any conditions or requirements of an atmospheric emission licence.17

  3. If you are performing a listed activity, and air pollutants are emitted at concentrations above the emission limits as specified in your licence, you commit a criminal offence.18

  4. If you supply false or misleading information in any application for an atmospheric emission licence, it is an offence.19

  5. Similarly, it is an offence to supply false or misleading information in an application for the transfer, variation or renewal of a licence.20

  6. The Minister can grant exemptions from the application of any provision in the Act.21 He can impose conditions for the grant of any exemption. If he does, it is a criminal offence not to comply with any such condition.22

B. Controlled emitters

Certain appliances and activities, if they cause atmospheric emissions which could present a threat to health or the environment, can be declared by the Minister as a ‘controlled emitter’. This declaration is by way of Government Notice, which must also set emission standards governing, amongst other things, the permissible amount, volume, emission rate or substance concentration.

  1. So far, the only declarations23 have been in respect of small boilers24 and temporary asphalt plans.25 It is a criminal offence to manufacture, sell or use any appliance or conduct any activity declared as a controlled emitter unless it complies with the standards established in the notices.26

  2. If you operate a ‘controlled emitter’ from which the emissions do not comply with the standards established by the Minister, you commit an offence.27

C. Offensive odours

This means any smell which is considered to be malodorous or a nuisance to a reasonable person.28 The occupier of any premises must take all reasonable steps to prevent the emission of any offensive odour caused by an activity on such premises and commits an offence by not doing so.29

D. Pollution prevention plants and atmospheric impact reports

  1. The Minister may declare any substance contributing to air pollution as a ‘priority air pollutant’. Once this has happened, he may also notify anyone conducting an activity which emits the substance to prepare and submit a pollution prevention plan. If you are served with such a notice, it is a criminal offence both to fail to submit the plan, and to implement it.30

  2. Any air quality officer (a municipal official designated as ‘air quality officer’ for the purposes of the Act31) can require you to submit an atmospheric impact report if he suspects that you have contravened the Act, or any conditions of a licence and that such contravention may have a detrimental effect on the environment. He may also require such a report if your atmospheric emission licence is under review. It is a criminal offence to fail to submit such a report.32

  3. It is an offence, by the way, to supply false or misleading information to an air quality officer.33

E. Mine rehabilitation

Once it is determined that a mine is likely to cease operations within a period of five years, the mine owner must notify the Minister of that fact, and of the plans for rehabilitation of the area, and/or the prevention of dust pollution. It is a criminal offence to fail in these obligations.34

  1. The opening line of the refrain from the song made famous by The Hollies (and written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood). 

  2. – ‘Air composition’. 

  3. – ‘Daily CO₂’. 

  4. We’re not dead yet. Humans will suffocate only if the levels are at least 70 000 parts per million – Wikipedia – ‘Carbon Dioxide – Toxicity’. 

  5. – ‘Facts and Figures’. This is the website for ‘Air Transport Action Group.’ 

  6. Whose etymology is ‘smoke and fog’. 

  7. www.chemistry.about.comloc cit

  8. Anthony D Barnosky v Elizabeth A Hadley End Game : Tipping Point for Planet Earth? (William Collins) 2015, at 121. 

  9. Ibid

  10. Barnosky et al, op cit, at 120. 

  11. – ‘Dinosaurs passing wind may have caused climate change’. 

  12. Wikipedia – ‘List of countries by greenhouse gas emissions’

  13. The Department of Environmental Affairs has a website (South Africa Air Quality Information System) It contains a lot of useful information. 

  14. See Government Gazette Notice 248 published on 31   March 2010 in Government Gazette 33064. The categories stay the same, but some details have been changed in latest amendment, which appears in Government Gazette Notice 551, published on 12 June 2015, in Government Gazette 38863. 

  15. These are broad categories. There are a lot of subcategory industries and activities, so best check the latest Government Gazette. 

  16. See section 22 read with Section 51(1)(a). 

  17. Section 51(1)(e). 

  18. Section 51(1)(e). 

  19. Section 51(1)(f). 

  20. Ibid

  21. See section 59 of the Act. 

  22. Section 51(1)(h). 

  23. As listed on – I have not been able to trace others. 

  24. Government Notice 831 published on 1 November 2013 in Government Gazette 36973. 

  25. Government Notice 201 published on 28 March 2014 in Government Gazette 37461. 

  26. Section 25(1) read with section 51(1)(a). 

  27. Section 51(2). 

  28. See the definition in section 1 of the Act. 

  29. Section 35(2) read with section 51(1)(a). 

  30. Section 51(1)(b) read with section 29(1)(b) and (2). 

  31. See Section 14 of the Act. 

  32. Section 51(1)(c) read with section 30. 

  33. Section 51(1)(g). 

  34. Section 51(1)(d) read with section 33.