FOCUS AFRICA – South Africa: a coal-based economy hanging in the balance between development and CO2 abatement

With nearly 54 million inhabitants and the second biggest GDP in Africa  (after Nigeria, which got ahead in 2014),  South Africa is a crucial regional actor.

The country is a coal-based, energy-intensive economy: according to IEA statistics, in 2014 coal accounted for about 70 percent of the national TPES (total primary energy supply); coal indeed represents 87.60 percent of the national energy production, not considering imports, exports, bunkers and stock changes. The South African energy mix appears almost completely dominated by the use of coal, making the country the biggest polluter of Africa with an estimated 1.46 percent share on a global level (while the overall African continent accounts to 7.18 percent).

South Africa, although being considered as an upper-middle income country, faces high rates of internal inequality: according to the World Bank GINI index data, in 2011 the country suffered the highest level of inequality of the entire continent, with increasing values since the 1994 democratization. Similar levels of inequality characterize the energy access context. Since 1994, and more sharply since 2002, the country indeed experienced a huge increase in terms of GDP per capita, yet without improvements in income distribution. Differences emerge between South Africa and other sub-Saharan African countries in terms of access to electricity: according to the World Bank, in 2012 the 85.4 percent of South Africans had access to electricity, a very high value compared with other countries in the region. However, discrepancies arise between rural and urban areas and recent studies argued that the high values observed in residential electricity consumption – 17 percent in 2013, 19 percent in 2014,  on the total consumption pattern- are to be seen as a consequence of the fact South Africa has one of the lowest electricity prices in the world, rather than of a fair and diffused energy wealth.

As said, coal dominates the national energy mix. The combined production of oil and gas accounts for less than 1 percent of the TPES (0.65 percent in 2015), and the territory has only tiny proven reserves of both resources. On the other hand South Africa actively imports crude oil and oil products, then selling back almost 50 percent of the latter on international markets; the remaining crude oil amounts get refined on the national territory and represents 33.55 percent of the final energy consumption (2015 values). Nearly 70 percent of the refined oil is used in the transport sector, while industry heavily relies on coal. The ratio of industry utilization for industry own use between coal and oil products was more than 5:1 in 2015.


This overdependence on coal exposes South Africa to a range of issues. First of all, the strict link between electricity generation and coal use could lead to further increases in coal mining and extraction, given an increasing demand for electricity and the problems the country is facing in terms of undersupply and blackouts, as reported by recent studies. Coal mining, extraction and burning activities lead in turn to additional increases in the overall level of CO2 emissions, and to other side impacts  on human health, life conditions, crops yields, water pollution and groundwater basins pollution, linked to extraction and burning activities. Those kind of concerns led to civil activism and contestations in the extracting zones and, in particular, in the Mpumalanga province (in the North-Western part of the country). The municipality of Emelahleni, site to a major extraction field and burning stations, became the core and the symbol of such demonstrations and came under the global spotlight in ../since …. According to local residents, coal dust- induced explosions cause downfalls in crops returns and breath-related problems to rural communities living near the stations. Together with international organizations and medias, local no-coal groups (such as the Southern African Green Revolutionary Council) are pushing for decarbonization of the province, also focusing on the relationships between coal extraction and deforestation, erosion, and displacement of communities among other pollution-related effects.

Given the crucial link between the coal sector and the South African economy, is it still possible for the country to decouple its GDP growth from the production of pollutant emissions? Studies confirmed the central role the national coal industry is also playing as a major employer. the Mpumalanga province itself have seen a high population growth during the last two decades, with an additional million people than in year 2000 (from nearly 3 million to most than 4) according to the 2011 census and previous studies, a migration probably due to the presence of coal-related work opportunities. According to a 2015 study, however, a decoupling effect between CO2 emissions and GDP growth is seen as possible and already ongoing, through diverse phases, during the last two decades. In particular, it is said that the overall South African economy is somehow experiencing the results of energy efficiency measures yet in a coal-dominated environment, and that a significant decoupling phenomenon emerged during the 2010-2012 period.

decoupling South Africa

As of 2014, the share of hydroelectric, renewable energy generation and energy produced by biofuels and waste accounted together for 9.6 percent of the national energy production, and for 10.8 percent of the TPES. The use of biofuels clearly dominates this aggregate value, followed by geothermal, solar and wind energy, and a tiny share of hydropower generation. The South African government, however, has showed  its commitment to a gradual shift towards a greener energy mix through a series of plans and decisions issued during the last years, always referring to a general pledge to the protection of the environment as stated by Article 24 of the national Constitution. New investments in nuclear energy seem to have been discarded after the 2011 Fukushima accident, according to specific studies (nuclear energy, currently entirely used for electricity production, accounted only for a 2.44 percent of the 2014 TPES). In particular, the National Development Plan (NDP, 2012) aimed – among a very broad range of social goals including poverty eradication, technology diffusion, and social justice – at implementing the previous 2011 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010-2030) by procuring at least 20GW of electricity from renewables to reduce emissions from the electricity industry, and by improving the energy efficiency of coal mining and mineral processing by 15 percent by 2030. Furthermore, the NDP endorsed the possibility to abandon the oldest and most inefficient coal plants. Also in 2011, the government prepared a Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REI4P), a large infrastructure plan designed to reduce the country’s emissions through the facilitation of renewable energy- led investments. According to specific studies, the plan was considered on track as of 2014; positive results apparently came due to falling costs of power from wind and solar with respect to rising construction prices of new coal-based power stations. According to the same research, 3.92GW of RE generation had been installed in 2014 (of which only around 0.75GW had become operational at the time) compared to an initial 17.80GW by 2027 REI4P goal. Investments in RE are indeed increasing in the country according to recent surveys. Wind and solar quality, on the other side, vary greatly across the ample national territory, with the coasts and the North-Western regions seeming more profitable for new investments, with scarce potential returns from an eventual industry substitution in the North-East coal extraction regions.

wind-solar South Africa

The country fully participated in the COP21’s efforts  and is today a party to the Paris Agreement with its own INDC presented in September 2015. The text envisages a peak, plateau and decline trajectory (PPD)  of the country’s emissions, with a goal to reduce them to between 398 and 614 MtCO2e (incl. LULUCF – land use, land use change and forestry), over the period 2025–2030. according to the document, “in the short term up to 2015”, the country “faces significantly rigidity in its economy and any economy-driven transition to a low carbon [..] society” must take into account “the overriding priority to address poverty and inequality”. This formulation clearly refers to the “common but differentiated responsibilities” approach currently dominating the international politics of mitigation. According to Climate Analytics, the INDC target proves equivalent to a 20-82percent increase on 1990 levels excl. LULUCF, with no or scarce possibilities to actively contribute to the global 2° goal even if fully implemented. South Africa pledged, however, a “complete transformation” of its energy mix through its INDC, to be accompanied by concrete actions in terms of adaptation for an estimated up-to-30 billion dollars in a high-mitigation scenario.


(Image: Bungee jump, Orlando Towers, Soweto, South Africa. Photo credit: SarahTz / Flickr)