Our Burning Planet

OUR BURNING PLANET

South Africa takes bolder steps to reduce emissions — but are they enough?

South Africa’s updated Nationally Determined Contributions are informed by global adaptation goals, anticipated climate impacts, South Africa’s adaptation strategy and key economic sectors most vulnerable to the climate crisis. (Photo: EPA / Nic Bothma)

As SA works to wiggle its way off the UK’s red list to attend the COP26 meetings, the country has updated its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to show more ambitious efforts to combat the climate crisis. But the country’s scramble for energy may be a setback to achieving its new targets.

South Africa is the 12th-biggest carbon emitter in the world, but has continued pursuing fossil fuel projects that will increase emissions. This week, however, the government lowered its target emission range to align with the global goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C by the end of the century through updating the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

The updated contributions, which come ahead of climate envoys from the UK, US, France and Germany arriving in South Africa to discuss a possible coal retirement plan this week, fall under the umbrella of the first NDCs, which were submitted in 2016. The second NDCs are expected in 2025 as part of the Paris Agreement obligations to publish contributions every five years.

South Africa’s revised carbon emission targets range between 350 to 420 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2-eq). The country’s lower target range of 350Mt CO2-eq is compatible with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target, placing South Africa ahead of the curve and possibly making it a  global leader in the climate crisis fight.

NDC range
‘There is a material risk that our big emitters see the upper limit of the new NDC range as an opportunity to delay the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions’, says Nicole Loser, lawyer and head of Pollution and Climate Change at the Centre for Environmental Rights. (Photo: Thapelo Morebudi / The Sunday Times)

Its upper limit, however, puts the target above 1.5°C, possibly threatening the country’s climate action efforts.

Nicole Loser, lawyer and head of Pollution and Climate Change at the Centre for Environmental Rights, said the new emissions range is a step closer to a safe climate, but she raised concerns about the upper limit.

“There is a material risk that our big emitters see the upper limit of the new NDC range as an opportunity to delay the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Cabinet’s decision only matters for our climate response if we can keep emissions to the lower limit. This is of particular importance for South Africa, a country that is warming at twice the global average,” Loser said in a statement.

The country plans to use its three levels of government (national, provincial, local) to ensure that adaptation and mitigation strategies as set out in the Presidential Climate Commission, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Climate Change and the Provincial Forum on Climate Change are implemented and adhered to. The government will also engage with business, civil society and research institutions, the updated NDC document showed.

Building evidence-based support to ensure the implementation of these strategies will cost the country $13-million between 2021 and 2030.

Some of these strategies involve:

  • Climate-risk vulnerability assessments;
  • An adaptation needs costing methodology;
  • Climate events cost assessments through modelling;
  • Developing national, provincial and local mitigation plans; and
  • Distributing tool kits and so on.

Ambitious targets and strategies place South Africa in a better position for climate financing as the country heads to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, where climate financial pledges and discussions are expected to take place.

US President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden last week doubled the US’s climate pledge to developing nations, putting the amount at $11.2-billion by 2024. (Photo:  EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The South African delegation might struggle to attend COP26 in the UK as SA has been placed on the UK’s red list, requiring a 10-day quarantine upon arrival regardless of vaccination status. The South African government has met the UK government to discuss the matter and has been promised the red list will be reviewed in the next two weeks.

At COP25, wealthy countries pledged at least $100-billion a year to developing nations to assist with climate mitigation and adaptation. According to research, however, developed nations only met their obligations to the mammoth pledge by $1-billion per year between 2008 and 2019 in the Southern African Development Community region.

US President Joe Biden last week doubled the US’s climate pledge to developing nations, putting the amount at $11.2-billion by 2024.

According to the updated NDCs, South Africa is expecting to attract $8-billion per year in climate finance by 2030. The country needs climate financing to complete its transition from coal-powered energy to renewable energy as the switch could cost $10-billion.

Without climate financing, the country could struggle to meet its new NDCs, complete the just transition and might end up increasing emissions.

South Africa currently makes provision for 1,500MW of new coal-fired energy and 3,000MW of gas and diesel, with plans for an additional 3,300MW of new coal-fired power in the Musina Makhado Special Economic Zone.

Recently, Eskom completed Medupi, the most expensive coal-fired power station to construct in the world, at an estimated cost so far of R120-billion. The completion of the plant is expected to increase coal demand by 16 million tonnes a year.

With global average temperatures having reached 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels in 2020, and southern Africa heating up at twice the global average, South Africa cannot risk building additional coal-fired power stations or any other fossil fuel-related projects.

Dr Roland Ngam, programme manager for Climate Justice and Socioecological Transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Southern Africa, said that there is room for an update of SA’s Integrated Resource Plan to reduce its coal fleet and focus on renewable energy, in light of the recent increase in the embedded generation threshold from 1MW to 100MW.

“We need to encourage the government to step up its decarbonisation efforts and encourage international partners to help South Africa reduce its carbon emissions faster. Funding will be needed to help power utility Eskom migrate away from its coal fleet,” Ngam said.

Despite the intense climate consequences under a business-as-usual approach, Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe has made it clear that the way forward for South Africa’s energy needs would be a combination of renewable energy, gas and nuclear. The National Energy Regulator of South Africa recently approved the procurement of the 2,500MW Nuclear New Programme.

Beyond that, the Karpowership proposal is awaiting an environmental approval appeal from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment in a more than R200-billion deal that could provide South Africa with an additional 1,220MW of energy.

“Given the research on fugitive emissions from gas and the international calls to abandon oil and gas, South Africa has an easy route to take — remove oil and gas from the energy mix. But this requires a system change from the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. The DMRE has to acknowledge that climate change is real and gas is not a transition fuel,” said Liz McDaid, an environmental activist with the Green Connection and the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA).

decarbonisation
‘We need to encourage the government to step up its decarbonisation efforts,’ said Dr Roland Ngam, programme manager for Climate Justice and Socioecological Transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Southern Africa. (Photo:  EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The updated NDCs are informed by global adaptation goals, anticipated climate impacts, South Africa’s adaptation strategy and key economic sectors most vulnerable to the climate crisis. These sectors include health, agriculture and forestry, human settlements, biodiversity and water, the NDC document said.

Extreme weather events as a result of increased temperatures are expected to result in water and food shortages, with unbearable heat in the northern, northeast and northeastern interior parts of the country, the NDC document showed.

Temperature extremes are also expected to have a dire effect on a range of livelihoods, from biodiversity to a strain on the healthcare system, with vulnerable populations being hardest hit.

“We need real action towards renewables. South Africa is and will be hard-hit by climate change, and it is the poorest and marginalised who will suffer. Government needs to wake up and start acting responsibly,” McDaid said. DM/OBP

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  • I agree absolutely with the last paragraph. We need real action. The new NDCs are a drop in the ocean relative to what is required and ignore the opportunity of the green economy. Until the Minister of Coal Mining is sidelined, it is difficult to see how we can move forward towards substantial decarbonisation.

  • The modern economies got built on cheap dirty energy and now they pivot to low energy intensity service economies and import most their goods from countries that are now expected to produce those goods in environmentally friendly way.

    I presume the big boys will gladly lend us money to go green …

    There should be a levy on past pollution, it would probably make the debt:GDP numbers of Germany, France, UK, Japan, USA look somewhat worse? Proceeds of the levy can go toward capex on clean energy in developing nations.