JOHANNESBURG - South Africa’s plan to delay the closure of its coal-fired power plants could result in thousands of air pollution-related deaths in the country, according to a new study.

A proposal contained in a draft of South Africa’s new energy plan would see coal plants in the country operate for 10 years longer than they were scheduled to. This would cause an increase in deaths from health problems including lung cancer, asthma and heart disease, according to the study by Centre for Research on Energy & Clean Air (CREA), a Finnish nonprofit. It said pregnant women and children were especially likely to develop these conditions. The study projected that the delayed closure of the plants could result in some 32,000 deaths.

Seven power plants generating 11.3 gigawatts of coal power were scheduled to be decommissioned by 2030. The new energy plan aims to offer a path to sustainable energy production as the country grapples with costly, widespread power outages. Between 70% and 80% of South Africa’s electricity comes from burning coal.

Extending the lifespan of coal-fired power plants is seen as a way to resolve the energy crisis. CREA, however, says the plan would put people’s health at risk while also undermining South Africa’s commitment to reducing emissions as a party to the Paris Agreement.

In 2023, Eskom emitted close to 1.5 megatons of sulfur dioxide and almost 130,000 tons of particulate matter. CREA’s analysis said there could be 13,000 deaths from inhaling particulate matter, 6,100 from nitrogen oxides and a further 13,000 from sulfur dioxide. It suggested that retiring the coal plants as scheduled would prevent deaths.