- Population (2021): 60,184,491 (ranked 25th globally)
- GDP per capita (2021): USD 5,400 (ranked 41st globally)
- Emissions (2018): 520.5Mt (ranked 14th)
- Earth.Org Sustainability Index Ranking: 218th
Pledges & Targets
- Paris Agreement & NDC: South Africa’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), last updated in March 2021, targets the following:
- Peak emissions in 2025 and maintain them in a range between 398 and 614 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030.
- South Africa aims to reduce GHG emissions to a range between 212 and 428 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2050.
- Road to Net-Zero: South Africa aims to reach net zero-emission in 2050, but does not plan to phase out the use of coal in the meantime.
- Clean Energy Goal: South Africa aims to increase the use of renewable energy from a current share of 11% to approximately 41% by 2030, and slash the portion of fossil fuels from 80% to around 51% in the same timeframe. 17742 MW of wind power, 8288 MW of solar PV and 4600 MW of hydropower will be installed in the following decades.
State of Affairs
After updating its NDC in March 2021, the South African government has clarified how it intends to meet its 2050 carbon neutrality goal.
South Africa’s original NDC aimed to keep emissions within a range of 398 and 614 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030. In March 2021, South Africa’s government updated their NDC keeping the same lower limit and reducing the upper limit by 28% to 440 million tonnes. Also, South Africa clearly states that their target range is not likely in line with the Paris Agreement 1.5˚C temperature goal. At current rates, emissions will keep increasing by at least 12% by 2030.
South Africa’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution( INDC) and NDC has 6 goals:
- To develop a national adaptation plan, and begin operationalisation as part of implementing the National Climate Change Response Policy (NCCRP) for the period from 2020 to 2025 and from 2025-2030.
- To take into account climate considerations in national development, sub-national and sector policy frameworks for the period 2020 to 2030.
- To build the necessary institutional capacity for climate change response planning and implementation for the period 2020 to 2030.
- To develop an early warning, vulnerability and adaptation monitoring system for key climate-vulnerable sectors and geographic areas for the period 2020 to 2030, and reporting in terms of the National Adaptation Plan with rolling 5 year implementation periods
- To develop a vulnerability assessment and adaptation needs framework by 2020 to support a continuous presentation of adaptation needs
- Communication of past investments in adaptation for education and awareness as well as for international recognition
South Africa is experimenting with a “Peak, plateau and decline” (PPD) plan to gradually reduce GHG emissions. The plan allows for emissions to rise until 2025, plateauing up to 2035 before starting to decline. Key policies to achieve this decline include a carbon tax, sector-specific measures, assigning carbon budgets to companies and enacting more stringent regulatory standards.
Given that South Africa is a developing country, inadequate financial funding may hold it back from a transition to a low-carbon energy grid. Between 2010 and 2015, the total investment in climate adaptation increased from USD$1.64 billion in 2010 to USD$2.31 billion in 2015. Although South Africa has been investing heavily in mitigation and adaptation, they also mentioned that the average costs from 2021-2050 would be 12% more expensive than the 1971-2000 value, meaning that the prospects for sufficient climate financing are dimmer now than ever.
Nonetheless, South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REI4P) has approved 79 renewable energy projects worth approximately USD$16 billion. South Africa also encourages the use of electric vehicles from 2010 to 2050 and predicts that there will be 20% more hybrid electric vehicles within the country by 2030. However, given that the country has yet to scrap plans for new coal-fired power plants, it is unclear how large of an impact these renewable energy projects will have.
Climate Vulnerability & Readiness
The ND-GAIN Country Index by the University of Notre Dame summarises a country’s vulnerability to climate change and other global challenges in combination with its readiness to improve resilience. The more vulnerable a country is, the lower its vulnerability score, while the more ready a country is to improve its resilience, the higher its readiness score will be. South Africa’s scores are:
- Vulnerability Score: 0.407 (ranks 83rd out of 192 countries)
- Readiness Score: 0.367 (ranks 112nd out of 192 countries)
With an economy mainly reliant on agriculture, drought and water shortages are among the most concerning climate change impacts in South Africa, as the livelihoods of 8.5 million farmers are under threat. South Africa is the world’s 30th driest country as it only receives 464mm of rainfall per year, whereas global rainfall averaged 1000mm per year in the last decade, and it is possible that South Africa has already exploited around 98% of its available water supply resources.
Drought also presents a significant threat to food security in South Africa. A World Food Programme report reveals that South Africa’s crop production yield per hectare is increasing by 1.05% whereas the population grew by 1.27% from 1996 to 2016, indicating that population growth is exceeding agricultural yield. 14 million people, or 35% of the South African population, are exposed to food shortages due to high unemployment, high food prices and low supply. In 2020, the World Bank estimated that 32% of the total population live in rural areas and ⅔ of them were classified as poor. Research indicates that drought makes food accessibility harder for vulnerable people in rural areas, who cannot easily afford daily food supplies under dire economic conditions imposed by climate change.
In urban areas, residents also suffer from water shortages due to a record drought caused by climate change. Cape Town, a city of just over 4 million, has six major reservoirs with a total storage capacity of 898,000 megalitres of water but merely 26% of the total capacity was preserved in January 2018. According to the weather station at Cape Town Airport, there was 682mm of rain in 2014 whereas only 157mm of rain in 2017. In light of this, urban citizens were restricted their water allowance from around 90 litres to 50 litres per day. The government even banned car washing and filling up swimming pools to preserve water. Population growth with overdevelopment is another culprit of water shortage. Excessive urban development also exacerbates water shortages because building construction and a massive urban population tend to consume more water than rural areas. In short, a rising temperature imposed by human-induced activities and fewer rainfalls is the effects of climate changes to intensify water shortages across the country.
Despite the serious effects of water shortages in deeply unequal South Africa, as of July 2020 the government no longer recognises drought as a national disaster, part of an effort to achieve austerity measures through a suspension of financial aid or supplies for struggling farmers. Agri SA, a non-profit federation of agricultural organisations in South Africa, condemned the government, saying: “this type of ill-considered and reactionary announcement by the National Disaster Management Centre boggles the mind.”
The Department of Water and Sanitation published a statement in October 2019 urging South Africans to use water wisely when dam levels had fallen between 10% to 60%, as opposed to announcing any long-term plan to tackle droughts and water shortage, or providing safety nets for affected citizens. As there is no official recognition of drought as a disaster, most farmers cannot afford crop insurance due to high prices and unforeseen weather. Although insurers and the government subsidised around $223 million in 2021 to vulnerable farmers with a 10-year state subsidy scheme, they are reluctant to offer insurance premiums due to high natural risk and competitive farmers from China and the United States. Total insured farmland hectares declined from 859,000 in 2009/10 to merely 200,000 in 2017/18 and only 20% of farmers have drought insurance. As a result, South African farmers are further exposed and vulnerable to natural disasters without sufficient financial coverage.
Environmental Policies by Sector
- Renewables made up 10% of South Africa’s total energy share in 2017, per IRENA.
- Between 2012 and 2017, the share of renewable energy in South Africa’s renewable energy supply declined by -33.9%.
- In 2017, fossil fuels accounted for 91% of South Africa’s energy production. Renewable energy accounts for 9% only.
In 2019, the South African government announced the Integrated Resource Plan to illustrate a long-term plan to modernise the country’s electricity grid and infrastructure. Coal still generates 74% of total electricity in South Africa, with 39GW worth of installed capacity, whereas renewable energy, including wind, solar PV and hydroelectric power, generated only 3.6GW in 2020. To mitigate GHG emissions, the government has announced dozens of new renewable energy projects that will generate a total of 5,422 MW worth of electricity when completed. However, it is unclear how much these projects will allow South Africa to decouple itself from coal, given a lack of stringent policies to reduce the country’s reliance on the highly carbon-intensive energy source.
South Africa has announced goals to raise the share of renewable energy from 11% currently to approximately 41% by 2030, in addition to diminishing the use of fossil fuels from 80% to around 59% in the same timeframe. This plan will involve installing 17,742 MW of wind farms, 8,288 MW of solar farms, 4,600 MW of hydroelectric facilities and 600MW of concentrated solar power (CSP). Despite its ambitious vision, the ministerial leadership is questionable due to their reluctance to execute an implemented White Paper on Energy Policy in 1998, which held policy recommendations that would have vastly increased South Africa’s current renewable capacity.
Meanwhile, the new energy plan also decommissions several coal-fired power plants and adopts a hybrid energy mix into its economic structure by 2030. The upcoming environmental policies are going to confront various uncertainties as the integrated planning regarding the energy and electricity supply sectors are uncoordinated, lacking coherence and intermittent. In brief, South Africa’s energy policies sound innovative, yet governmental inefficiency may hinder progress.
- As of 2019, 33.1% of South Africans commute by private vehicle, 31.9% do so using public transport.
- The 2013 National Household Travel Survey demonstrated that 68.8% of South African households use taxi services daily, 21.1% of them use commuter buses and 9.9% of them use commuter rail.
- Road transportation contributes 91.2% of the total emission, 5% of GHG emissions is contributed by aviation and less than 2.2% of GHG emissions is induced by maritime transportation.
- South Africa has around 23,000km of railway tracks and carries 530 million passengers per year.
South Africa’s transportation sector accounts for 10.8% of the country’s total GHG emissions. Urban transportation plays a significant role in air pollution and causes a brown haze over most of South Africa’s major cities. Severe air pollution also raises various health risks so children and the elderly are vulnerable to human-induced air pollution.
In response, the Department of Transport has announced a Green Transport Strategy to show their determination to gradually eliminate GHG emissions from the transportation sector. The goals of the strategy include promoting the development of efficient integrated transport systems, promoting energy efficiency and emission control measures, minimising the negative effects of transport activities on the environment and facilitating the transport sector’s transition to a climate-resilient transport system and infrastructure.
The Department of Transport has also set up transport-related environmental taxation and fiscal policy instruments. Fuel taxation, carbon taxation, vehicle taxation with value-added tax (VAT) are also included to diminish South Africans’ intention to own private vehicles and adopt public transportation instead. However, despite high ridership, South Africa’s public transportation system remains far from clear if the country does not update its grid and distance itself from coal. Taxes have mainly functioned to shift responsibilities to individual consumers, while tangible changes in policy have been noticeably lacking. Moreover, the Department of Trade and Industry has issued a draft policy paper to support the commercial development of new energy vehicles for both domestic and foreign export, and accelerate the use of cleaner fuel technologies across the country.
- 8.69% of South Africa’s territorial space is protected, as are 15.5% of South Africa’s marine seas are considered Marine Protected Areas.
- Per Yale’s Environmental Performance Index, 67.35% of South Africa’s population is urbanised.
- Yale EPI ranked South Africa 62nd in the world in terms of ecosystem vitality, which measures how well countries preserve, protect, and enhance their ecosystems and the services they provide.
- According to the World Bank collection of development indicators, forests covered 14.12% of South Africa’s land in 2018. In 2010, South Africa had 3.97Mha of natural forest, extending over 4.3% of its land area. In 2020, it lost 30.3kha of natural forest, equivalent to 11.3Mt of CO2 emissions.
- Per Global Forest Watch, 9% of tree cover loss in South Africa from 2000 to 2020 is due to deforestation. The top 2 regions are responsible for 71% of all tree cover loss in these 2 decades. KwaZulu-Natal had the most tree cover loss at 587kha compared to an average of 164 Kha.
In 2019, South Africa’s five-year National Biodiversity Assessment, which involved the input of 90 scientific institutions and over 470 experts, warned that the country’s biodiversity is severely endangered due to climate change. According to the report, 36 out of 1000 South African plant species have gone extinct, 70 are potentially extinct and 14% of plant species and 12% of animal species are on the brink of extinction. Climate change impacts including water shortages threaten the survival of much of South Africa’s biodiversity. Marine species are especially at risk as all estuarine regions and nearly 90% of wetland areas are confronting water scarcity and drought. Climate change, pollution and habitat loss are frequently mentioned in the report as important threats to South Africa’s biodiversity. Habitat loss and the extinction of species caused by rising temperatures and drought have already affected the agriculture sector and the entire ecosystem.
South Africa’s ample biodiversity creates employment opportunities for almost half of a million people in the form of a vibrant tourism sector, an industry that benefits from the country’s diverse ecosystem. South African tourism is in fact worth more than USD$2 billion annually.
The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism introduced the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) in 2003 to outline a 2010 conservation plan. The strategic objectives of the NBSAP include enabling a framework that integrates biodiversity into the economy, valorising biodiversity to contribute to socio-economic development and sustainable livelihoods, focusing on certain biodiversity priority areas, abiding to international obligations and ensuring that biodiversity enjoys effective governance. While these goals were partly reached, the pessimistic outlook provided in the country’s most recent biodiversity assessment indicates that its conservation efforts have underdelivered.
- Per the global NGO Earth’s Endangered Creatures, South Africa possesses 509 endangered species, of which 83 are plant species and 426 are animal species.
- Per the research group Animal Protection Index, South Africa has not enshrined into law legislation that recognises the sentience of animal species.
The closest South Africa has gotten to legally enshrining animal rights was with 1962’s Animal Protection Act. But beyond recognising that animals can suffer, the act did not formally recognise animal sentience in South Africa’s legislation or policy. The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) has frequently considered updating animal protection legislation, without any measurable success.
The Animal Protection Act of 1962 recognises some aspects of animal sentience and understands that animals can feel physical pain. Yet, the definition of animal is not comprehensive in the rule of law. For example, fish and wild animals are excluded from the definition. Enforcement is lacking because there is no formal body to implement the terms of the Act and safeguard animals welfare in accordance with relevant policies. Also, it is unclear whether the government should solely provide funding to the enforcement work, or whether any specific training is offered to these officers to execute their roles. In brief, South Africa has issued legislation that protects animal rights, but has yet to engage in sufficient action to fulfil its goals.
- Per IQAir, in 2020 South Africa averaged 18.0µg/m³ (micrograms of air pollutants per cubic metre of air), ranking 49th out of the 106 countries and territories where data was collected.
- IQAir describes South Africa as having moderate air quality in urban areas. The country recorded 188,000 premature deaths related to particulate matter exposure in 2019.
- In 2019, South Africa had on average 2.5kg of waste per capita daily while the country generated around 57 million tonnes of general waste annually.
South Africa is one of the top 15 largest emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide, largely due to its high coal dependency to support its national economy, thus making it one of the most carbon-intensive economies among the G20. In light of this, two South African environmental justice organisations, GroundWork and Vukani Environmental Movement, have sued and challenged the government on the basis of the “Deadly Air case” in May 2021. They accused the government of failing to improve the province of Mpumalanga’s air quality due to negative health impacts of coal burning across the country. The plaintiffs cited a 2017 study to estimate that at least 2,239 citizens were dead due to coal-related air pollution within the country and more than 9,500 cases of bronchitis among children aged from 6 to 12. Nonetheless, air pollution becomes a serious problem in South Africa as it exacerbates economic, health and productivity losses.
In the 2019 Greenpeace report, Highveld is one of the most polluted regions across the globe due to high emission rates of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide caused by mines and various industrial facilities employing coal. Highveld has become a symbol of South Africa’s chronic dependence on coal, and there is a close relationship between the government’s ruling party and the coal industry. South Africa is the 7th largest coal producer in the world, and 94% of the country’s electricity is generated in coal powered plants. As such, the government is reluctant to reduce the use of coal in spite of environmental concerns or they would lose political support in the upcoming election. In short, the government would rather turn a blind eye and not deal with severe air pollution in order to gain firm political support from the business world.
South Africa generates around 54.2 million tons of municipal, commercial and industrial waste every year. Only 10% is recycled and reused whereas 90% is landfilled. The State of Waste Report, which was issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs in 2016, reveals that 94% of the 48 million tons of hazardous waste sent to landfill sites did not undergo any prior protective procedure. This hazardous waste harms the surrounding environment. Despite an enormous amount of waste, the government of Gauteng region has not licenced a new landfill facility for more than 2 decades even though existing landfills are filling up at an alarming rate. Also, the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA) also admitted an obvious decline in the standard of landfill operation and management across the country. In brief, South Africa is confronting a waste crisis that has to be sorted out as soon as possible.