/ 31 March 2021

South Africa tops G20 coal-reliance list in 2020, report finds

Greenpeace Say South Africa No. 2 Sulfur Dioxide Hotspot
In 2020, 86% of South Africa’s electricity came from coal, compared to the global average of 34%, Global Electricity Review research shows. (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

South Africa retained its top ranking on the G20 list for countries most reliant on coal-fired power in 2020 and will likely remain in that position this year. 

The Global Electricity Review report by independent energy think-tank Ember analysed electricity data from every country in the world last year. 

In 2020, 86% of South Africa’s electricity came from coal, compared to the global average of 34%. It is significantly ahead of the next highest G20 member, India, which generates 71% of its electricity from coal.

Among the report’s key observations is that South Africa is experiencing an unprecedented electricity crisis, which has seen electricity demand fall 5.4% since 2015. 

“Spiralling costs of new coal plants have placed the state-owned utility Eskom in dire financial situation, leading to increased electricity tariffs, which have caused electricity demand to stagnate,” the report said. 

The data showed that in 2020 the growth in wind and solar helped push coal power to a record fall of 4%, as coal generation dropped by 346 terawatt-hours. 

The report, however, warns that models from the International Energy Agency show that coal power must fall 14% every year to keep the world on track for 2050 net-zero emissions. “As electricity demand growth picks up again, wind and solar will need to significantly accelerate to ensure that coal continues to fall,” Ember said in a statement. 

New coal-fired power procurement

South Africa is planning to procure 2 500 megawatts of coal-fired power generation by December 2021 through its coal baseload independent power producer procurement programme

Civil society groups have launched significant campaigns against new coal-fired power plants being built. In 2017, the Thabametsi coal-fired power was stopped by a court ruling. And this year Groundwork scored a victory when the water licence granted for the 600MW Khanyisa coal-fired power plant in the Mpumalanga was revoked by the South African water tribunal. 

Both cases involved strong arguments for climate-change considerations that had been neglected in the projects’ planning. As well as the legal challenges launched by environmental rights groups, the projects also suffered a number of setbacks, including the withdrawal of funding by a number of commercial banks under pressure to stop funding coal power

“South Africa already faces a tough challenge in successfully decarbonising its coal-heavy grid. But any continued investment in coal generation will make the scale of this challenge harder, and further entwine the fate of the economy with that of the coal sector,” said Euan Graham, an electricity-tracking analyst at Ember.  

“The government’s recently stated ambition to reach net-zero by 2050 is a welcome announcement, but massive deployment of cheap wind and solar is crucial to pursuing an orderly transition away from coal, while navigating a path out of the current electricity crisis affecting the country.”

An enormous challenge

Dave Jones, global lead at the energy research hub, reiterated that despite coal’s record drop during the pandemic, it still fell short of what is needed to address the climate crisis. 

“Coal power needs to collapse by 80% by 2030 to avoid dangerous levels of warming above 1.5°C. We need to build enough clean electricity to simultaneously replace coal and electrify the global economy. World leaders have yet to wake up to the enormity of the challenge,” Jones said. 

The global review data shows that, despite the record 2020 fall in coal, power sector emissions were still about 2% higher in the year of the pandemic than in 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed. 

The agency’s Electricity Market Report 2020 expects that globally, coal-fired generation will increase by about 3% in 2021, and that gas-fired plants will increase output by about 1%. “This would lead to a rise in CO₂ emissions from the power sector of about 2% in 2021,” it said in December last year. 

For its review, Ember analysed 68 countries, comprising 90% of world electricity generation. The data showed that the world is producing more power fossil fuels than in 2015. 

“There is an expectation that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and will, therefore, be the first to be phased out. South Africa has the highest coal reliance of any electricity grid of the G20 countries, but also it has such good solar resources and land space, it is in a position to reduce its coal reliance quicker and cheaper than any other country,” Jones told the Mail & Guardian

“South Africa, as such a big coal generator, and with so many opportunities to quickly replace coal generation with clean electricity, would need to be collapsing its coal generation much faster than it’s currently planning.” 

The review showed that wind and solar already supplied a 10th of the world’s electricity last year, double from five years ago.

South Africa’s low-emissions development strategy 2020 plans a low-carbon pathway that will see coal peak in 2025, then begin to plateau and, eventually, steadily decline after 2030. The strategy is grounded in the extensive global body of research from climate scientists, which confirms the relationship between human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, higher global average surface