South Africa’s high carbon energy sector contributed 94.7% of CO₂ emissions in 2020

By Ronda Naidu

South Africa’s high carbon energy sector contributed 94.7% of CO₂ emissions in 2020

South Africa, the continent’s second-largest polluter, is grappling with the practicalities of a Just Energy Transition. The adverse effects of the country’s reliance on fossil fuel power stations is evident in the 8th National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report (NIR), published by the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy.

The NIR shows a negligible 0.8% decrease over two decades with South Africa’s net GHG emissions in carbon dioxide (CO₂) equivalent being 446 million tonnes in 2000 and declining to 442 million tonnes in 2020.

In stark contrast, over three decades since 1990, South Africa’s total GHG emissions (excluding land use) have increased by 41%, according to Climate Transparency.

The discrepancy can arguably be attributed to net GHG emissions declining “by 5.9 percent primarily as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic” with preliminary data from the South African GHG Emissions Reporting System for 2021 indicating “emission sources have increased compared to 2020 levels”.

The Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment expects “most carbon-intensive assets are likely to return to pre-COVID emission rates” which is “in line with international trends”.

These carbon-intensive assets include the country’s 15 coal-fired power plants which account for 38.7 GW of the country’s 52.5 GW installed capacity. In November 2022, the World Bank approved US$497 million to decommission and repurpose the Komati coal-fired power plant using renewables and batteries, thereby lowering South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a difficult challenge worldwide, and particularly in South Africa given the high carbon intensity of the energy sector,” said World Bank Group President, David Malpass.

South Africa has committed to limit annual carbon emissions to a range between 350 and 420 megatonnes by 2030 and achieving a net-zero path by 2050. However, the country’s ability to meet these targets are currently under debate as “these are voluntary national commitments we set ourselves to decarbonise the economy and move to a fossil [fuel]-free economy”, according to newly appointed Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa who is grappling with rolling blackouts.

Increase in emissions

Emissions estimated in the 8th NIR cover four broad emission sectors: namely energy, industrial processes and product use (IPPU); agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU); and waste.

Of the four sectors, energy is by far the largest contributor to CO₂ emissions – at 94.7% in 2020. Energy industries were the main contributor, accounting for 62.4% of emissions from the energy sector, followed by transport (12.7%) and manufacturing industries and construction (8.8%).

IPPU contributed 4.9% to carbon emissions while agriculture (excluding FOLU) contributed 0.4% in 2020.

South Africa’s lockdown restrictions during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 led to a noticeable reduction (6.8%) in emissions in the energy sector. According to the data, this can be attributed to the reduced travel and trading during the period. However, overall for the 20-year period, emissions in the energy sector increased by 2.2%.

Despite energy being the largest contributor to CO₂ emissions in South Africa in 2020, solid waste disposal recorded the highest emissions rate across the four documented sectors for the 20-year reporting period – increasing 34.1% since 2000. Figures here clock into the high double digits, with incineration and open burning of waste emissions increasing by 90.2% over the 20-year reporting period. Domestic wastewater treatment emissions (an increase of 42.6%) was the biggest driver while industrial treatment and discharge declined by more than half (54.2%) over the same period.

Lower emissions

The IPPU sector recorded 22.7% lower emissions over the two decades covered by the report. National factors that fed into this include a decrease in the country’s mineral and production activity as well as its erratic electricity supply. On the international front, the global recession between 2006 and 2009 was cited as the biggest contributing reason.

In terms of AFOLU, a 3.9% decline in emissions was recorded when excluding forestry and other land use, with this percentage drastically changing to a 39.7% decline with the inclusion of FOLU. The change in data over the period has largely been driven by a decline in the cattle population (cattle and sheep are the largest contributors to enteric fermentation emissions) and an increase in manure management (largely derived on dairy, pig and poultry farms).

Addressing GHG emissions

South Africa first began monitoring its GHG inventory in 1998, a year after it signed up to abide by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). The first inventory, using the 2006 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Guidelines, was published in 2014 for the years 2000 to 2010, with updates in 2016, 2019 and 2020.

The mixed bag of results contained in the country’s 8th National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report belie the number of policies and initiatives in place to reduce GHG emissions. These include the:

  • National Climate Change Response Policy which aims to “make a fair contribution to the global effort to stabilise greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system within a timeframe that enables economic, social and environmental development to proceed in a sustainable manner”.
  • Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (REIPPPP) which aims to “procure multiple gigawatts of renewable energy generation at costs increasingly competitive with coal-fired electricity”, alleviating the state-owned power utility Eskom’s lack of generation capacity – and reducing GHG emissions.
  • National Waste Management Strategy which provides government policy and strategic interventions for the waste sector, specifically reduction in methane emission from landfills.
  • Carbon Tax which was introduced in 2019 as “an environmental tax on the carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions”.

With the publication of the 8th NIR, it is clear that the country has much work to do to meet the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C which requires greenhouse gas emissions to decrease by 43% by 2030.