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Wake-up call for SA’s coal-dependent energy sector

The energy sector in South Africa remains one of the most coal-dependent and largest per capita polluters in the G20 even though the country is at greater risk of the fallout from climate change.

Fossil fuels still account for 92% of South Africa’s total energy mix, with more than 85% of electricity coming from coal, says the Climate Transparency Report, the most comprehensive global annual review of climate action by G20 countries. 

“The impacts of climate change are already being felt in South Africa. Yet we have made little progress in addressing domestic emissions intensity or our contribution to greenhouse gases,” lead author, Bryce McCall of the University of Cape Town’s energy systems research group, says in a statement. “If the government is serious about economic recovery, we need to invest in technology that will provide affordable and sustainable energy solutions.”

Although South Africa is a signatory to the Paris Agreement to limit global average temperatures to below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the government’s decision to continue to build coal power plants means the country will not reach that target. 

“In addition to almost 6 000MW [megawatts] of coal capacity that is still to be added to the grid, the 2019 Integrated Resource Plan [IRP] includes investment in a further 1 500MW of new coal plants before 2030,” he said.

In 2019, the National Planning Commission initiated a social dialogue process to reach pathways for a just transition. 

The Climate Transparency Report notes that the country has high levels of poverty and unemployment and, with the coal mining sector employing more than 80 000 workers, it will make the transition to renewable energy sources more difficult.  While the National Planning Commission has initiated a social dialogue process to reach pathways for a just transition, “explicit transition policies have yet to be developed”.

“Key opportunities to raise the country’s climate ambitions include ramping up procurement processes for renewables as outlined in electricity expansion plans in the IRP,” the report states. “South Africa, too, should submit a revised NDC [the Paris Agreement’s nationally determined contributions] this year with much more ambitious climate targets.”

South Africa recently announced the procurement of 6.8 gigawatts of renewable energy and approved a low emissions development strategy intending to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but it does not provide for the phasing out of coal power.

According to the Climate Transparency Report, some G20 countries “may be exposed to more significant than average weather and climate-related impacts at 1.5°C of warming, compared to global projections. It is expected that Australia, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and South Africa will have many more days with extreme temperatures. In countries without widespread cooling infrastructure, such as South Africa, extreme temperatures could cause fatalities.” 

The report also found South Africa’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are some of the highest among the G20 nations. 

Renewable energy only accounts for 6% of South Africa’s electricity mix, compared with the G20 average of 27%. The majority of renewable additions for the country have been in hydropower and onshore wind, with a slower uptake of solar, the report notes. The level of coal power has hardly decreased and still accounts for 88% of the power mix.

The report says some G20 countries should avoid “quick fix” Covid-19 stimulus packages that favour fossil fuel industries. 

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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