South Africa is taking bolder steps to reduce emissions – but are they enough?

As SA tries to get out of the UK’s red list for COP26 meetings, the country has updated its nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to demonstrate a more ambitious effort to tackle the climate crisis. But the country’s struggles over energy resources may be an obstacle to achieving its new goals.

South Africa is the world’s 12th largest carbon emitter but continues to pursue fossil fuel projects that will increase emissions. But this week the government lowered its emissions target range to bring it in line with the global goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C by the end of the century by updating the country’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

The updated contributions , which come ahead of climate envoys from the UK, US, France and Germany coming to South Africa to discuss a possible coal pension plan this week, fall under the umbrella of the first NDCs, which were submitted in 2016 second It is expected that in 2025 NDCs will publish contributions every five years as part of the Paris Agreement’s commitments.

South Africa’s revised carbon emissions targets range from 350 to 420 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2-eq). The country’s lower target range of 350 MtCO2-eq is compatible with the 1.5°C target set by the Paris Agreement, bringing South Africa to the forefront and possibly making it a world leader in the fight against the climate crisis.

“There is a significant risk that our major emitters will see the upper limit of the new NDC range as an opportunity to delay greenhouse gas emissions reductions,” says Nicole Loser, lawyer and head of pollution and climate change at the Environmental Rights Centre.

But its cap sets a target above 1.5°C, which could jeopardise the country’s efforts to tackle climate change.

Nicole Loeser, lawyer and head of pollution and climate change at the Environmental Rights Centre, said the new emissions range is a step closer to a safe climate, but she expressed concern about the upper limit.

“There is a significant risk that our major emitters will see the cap on the new NDC range as an opportunity to delay cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The Cabinet decision is only relevant to our response to climate if we can keep emissions at the lower limit. This is particularly important for South Africa, a country that is warming twice as much as the global average,” Loeser said in a statement.

The country plans to use its three tiers of government (national, provincial, local) to ensure implementation of the adaptation and mitigation strategies outlined in the Presidential Climate Commission, the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Climate Change and the Provincial Climate Change Forum. The government will also engage with business, civil society and research institutes, the NDC update said.

Building science-based support to ensure these strategies are implemented will cost the country $13 million between 2021 and 2030.

Some of these strategies include:

  • Assessments of vulnerability to climate risks;
  • Adaptation requires a costing methodology;
  • Estimating the cost of climate events through modelling;
  • Development of national, provincial and local mitigation plans; and
  • Handing out toolkits and so on.
  • With ambitious targets and strategies, South Africa is in a better position for climate finance as the country heads to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, where climate finance commitments and discussions are expected to take place.

US President Joe Biden last week doubled the US climate pledge to developing countries, putting the sum at $11.2 billion by 2024.

South Africa’s delegation may face difficulties visiting COP26 in the UK as SA has been placed on the UK red list, requiring a 10-day quarantine on arrival, regardless of vaccination status. The South African government met with the UK government to discuss the issue and it was promised that the red list would be reviewed in the next two weeks.

At COP25, rich countries pledged at least $100 billion a year to developing countries to help with climate change mitigation and adaptation. But according to research, developed countries fulfilled their commitments to the giant pledge by only $1 billion a year between 2008 and 2019 in the Southern African Development Community region.

US President Joe Biden last week doubled the US climate change pledge to developing countries, putting the sum at $11.2 billion by 2024.

According to the updated NDC, South Africa expects to raise $8 billion a year in climate finance by 2030. The country needs climate finance to complete the transition from coal power to renewable energy, as the transition could cost $10 billion.

Without climate finance, the country could struggle to meet its new EOIs, complete a fair transition and could end up increasing emissions.

South Africa is currently allocating 1,500 MW of new coal-fired power and 3,000 MW of gas and diesel, with plans to install an additional 3,300 MW of new coal-fired power in the Musina Mahado Special Economic Zone .

Eskom recently completed construction of Medupi, the world’s most expensive coal-fired power plant, which is currently valued at R120 billion . The completion of the plant is expected to increase demand for coal by 16 million tonnes a year .

With average global temperatures reaching 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels in 2020 and southern Africa warming at twice the global average , South Africa cannot risk building more coal-fired power plants or any other fossil fuel projects.

Dr Roland Ngam, climate justice and socio-environmental transformation programme manager at the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, South Africa, said there was room to update SA’s Integrated Resource Plan to reduce its coal fleet and focus on renewable energy sources, 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 call on international partners to help South Africa reduce its carbon emissions faster. Funding will be needed to help power company Eskom move away from its coal fleet,” Ngam said.

Despite the serious climate impacts of the business-as-usual approach, Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe made it clear that the solution to South Africa’s energy needs would be a combination of renewables, gas and nuclear power. The South African National Energy Regulator recently approved the purchase of a new nuclear power programme with a capacity of 2 500 MW .

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

“Given the studies on fugitive gas emissions and international calls to move away from oil and gas, South Africa has an easy way to go – remove oil and gas from the energy mix. But this requires a systemic change by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. DMRE needs to recognise that climate change is real and that gas is not a transition fuel,” said Liz McDade, an environmental activist with Green Connection and the Organisation Against Fiscal Abuse (OUTA).

“We need to encourage the government to step up its decarbonisation efforts,” said Dr Roland Ngam, Climate Justice and Socio-Ecological Transformation Programme Manager, Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, South Africa.

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

Extreme weather events resulting from rising temperatures are expected to lead to water and food shortages with unbearable heat waves in the northern, northeastern and north-eastern interior parts of the country, the NDC document said.

Extreme temperatures are also expected to have a detrimental impact on a range of livelihoods, from biodiversity to the strain on the health system, with vulnerable groups suffering the most.

“We need real action on renewable energy. South Africa is and will be hit hard by climate change, and the poorest and most marginalised people will suffer. The government must wake up and start acting responsibly,” McDade said. DM / OBP