Climate costs South Africa 10% of its GDP

Floods. Droughts. Wildfires. Cyclones.

Massive weather events are wiping out entire communities and making life for everyone harder, more expensive and more dangerous. This is the reality of a world where carbon emissions are driving climate breakdown. But it’s a reality that is not being fairly shared.

Research from Stanford University, published this week, said poor countries along the tropics would have 24% larger economies if it wasn’t for global warming. This is because the world is 1°C hotter than it was a century ago. That warming means crops fail, economic productivity goes down and people get sick or die because of the heat.

South Africa is between 10% and 20% poorer than it would have been without that warming in the last six decades. Nigeria is 29% poorer and India is 30% poorer.

Conversely, the research — “Global warming has increased global inequality” — said that rich countries have benefited from this warming. By calculating temperature and economic growth between 1961 and 2010, the Stanford team found that already rich countries, mostly in colder climates, have growth spurts during an unusually hot year. This is because hotter weather moves them closer to what is known as the “empirical optimum” — the closer a country’s average temperature is to 13°C, the more its economy thrives. South Africa’s average is around 17°C and is only increasing with global warming.

The 19 countries with the highest carbon emissions have seen their economies grow by an average of 13%. Norway, for example, is 34% wealthier thanks to increased temperatures.

The researchers noted that; “The historical data clearly show that crops are more productive, people are healthier and we are more productive at work when temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold.”

Published in the peer-reviewed journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”, the research built on previous work from Stanford University into the impact of temperature changes on economies. This found that hotter temperatures — regardless of their cause — speed up economic growth in rich countries and slow it down in poor countries.

The new research calculated 20 000 versions of how each country would have progressed without temperature increases. While this still leaves uncertainties because all sorts of things impact on economic growth, the sheer number of calculations and countries included resolved any obvious variables.

Doing this many calculations allowed the Stanford team to also conclude that global warming has meant countries are also more unequal. Because rich people can insulate themselves from extreme events — by buying food when the price goes up or by being able to claim from insurance — they can keep functioning. Those with few resources to start with do not have such a buffer.


This local and global inequality in the impact of global warming is the topic of fierce international negotiation. While China and India are massively growing their emissions, they still represent a fraction of total emissions in the last two centuries. China has emitted half of what the United States has. India a seventh.

In climate negotiations, the countries already being hammered by global warming have demanded that the countries responsible for emissions pay them for that damage. Island states, disappearing under rising sea levels, have allied with African countries to make this a part of the Paris Agreement on climate change. They have failed.

Now, it turns out that the perpetrators are already benefiting from their pollution. And those responsible for the least carbon emissions are paying the highest price. 

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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