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What is South Africaʼs pathway to limit global warming to 1.5°C?

Ambition gap

In this section are presented domestic emissions pathways derived from Global Pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°C (SR15) and consistent with Paris Agreement compatibility and sustainability criteria as defined within the methodology

1.5°C compatible pathways

South Africaʼs total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

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Displayed values
Reference year
−100 %−50 %0 %200020202040206012345
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions
  1. 1
    1.5°C emissions level
    −39 %
  2. 2
    NDC (unconditional)
    −24 %
  3. 3
    Proposed 2021 NDC
    −24 %
  4. 4
    Ambition gap
    −15 %
  5. 5
    Reference year
2030 emissions levels
Reference year 2010
547 MtCO₂e/yr

A 1.5°C consistent NDC target range for South Africa would require emission reductions of 36-51% below 2010 levels by 2030 (excl. LULUCF). In absolute terms the most ambitious reduction proposed by South Africa’s 2016 NDC is 414 MtCO2e/yr (excl. LULUCF) by 2030.

South Africa’s NDC does not specify whether its NDC is conditional on international support however it highlights the need for financial support to implement its target. 1.5°C compatible domestic pathways would require for the country emission reduction of 39% reduction below 2010 levels (or 334 MtCO2e/yr by 2030), excluding LULUCF.

Under current policies South Africa would therefore be emitting 104-180 MtCO2e/yr more than is compatible with a domestic 1.5°C pathway in 2030 , however, if it were to fully implement the Integrated Resources Plan (2019), it would achieve its NDC target.3

Long term pathway

South Africa’s Low Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) targets an emissions level of 212-428 MtCO2e/yr including LULUCF, translating to 229-445 MtCO2e/yr excluding LULUCF by 2050 or 19-58% below 2010 levels.3,5 In contrast, a 1.5°C compatible pathway requires South Africa to reach emissions no higher than 134 MtCO2e/yr by 2050, excluding LULUCF which translates in 76% below 2010 levels.23

Our analysis suggests the energy sector would need to be the first sector to fully decarbonise by around 2050.

The majority of remaining GHG emissions will be from agriculture and industrial processes and will require negative emissions of 72 to 134 MtCO2e by 2050 to achieve net zero GHG emissions in that same year. Given the limited historical sink from the land sector South Africa benefits (around -28 MtCO2e/yr in 2015), the country will need to implement carbon dioxide removal (CDR) approaches to increase its sink through policy instruments fostering reforestation/afforestation or the development of technological CDR.

1 Department of Environment Forestry and Fisheries. Proposed updated Nationally Determined Contribution. (2021).

2 Climate Action Tracker. South Africa | Target Update Tracker. (2021).

3 Climate Action Tracker. South Africa 2020. Climate Action Tracker. (2020).

4 Department of Energy. Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2019). (2019).

5 Republic of South Africa. South Africa’s Low-Emission Development Strategy 2050. (2020).

6 Department of Environmental Affairs. South Africa’s 3rd Biennial Update Report to the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change. (2019).

7 Climate Transparency Report. South Africa. (2020).

8 Department of Environment Forestry and Fisheries. Draft 7th National Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report for the Republic of South Africa for public comment. Government Gazette. (2020).

9 Department of Energy. SA Energy Sector Report 2019. (2019).

10 Eberhard, A. & Naude, R. Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme. (2017).

11 Government of South Africa. South Africa’s Low-Emission Development Strategy. (2020).

12 South African Revenue Service. Latest on the impact of COVID-19 on SARS. (2020).

13 Government of South Africa. National Climate Change Response White Paper. (2014).

14 Department of Environmental Affairs. South Africa’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC). (2016).

15 Department of Environmental Affairs. South Africa’s 2nd Annual Climate Change Report. Department of Environmental Affairs vol. 3. (2016).

16 Department of Energy. Draft Post-2015 National Energy Efficiency Strategy for public comment. (2016).

17 Department of Transport. Green Transport Strategy for South Africa (2018-2050). (2018).

18 Surridge, A. D. et al. CCUS Progress in South Africa. in _15th International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies (GHGT-15). (2021).

19 Values are expressed in Global Warming Potential (GWP) from the Second Assessment Report (SAR).

20 Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. Proposed updated Nationally Determined Contribution: South Africa’s first Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris Agreement. (2021).

21 It is not clear to us which Global Warming Potential (GWP) is used to calculate the 398-440 MtCO2 range. Our analysis assumes these figures are based on AR4 values.

22 Based on the Climate Action Tracker – South Africa Assessment.

23 While global cost-effective pathways assessed by the IPCC Special Report 1.5°C provide useful guidance for an upper-limit of emissions trajectories for developed countries, they underestimate the feasible space for such countries to reach net zero earlier. The current generation of models tend to depend strongly on land-use sinks outside of currently developed countries and include fossil fuel use well beyond the time at which these could be phased out, compared to what is understood from bottom-up approaches. The scientific teams which provide these global pathways constantly improve the technologies represented in their models – and novel CDR technologies are now being included in new studies focused on deep mitigation scenarios meeting the Paris Agreement. A wide assessment database of these new scenarios is not yet available; thus, we rely on available scenarios which focus particularly on BECCS as a net-negative emission technology. Accordingly, we do not yet consider land-sector emissions (LULUCF) and other CDR approaches.

Energy system transformation

Decarbonisation of the power sector, the largest source of emissions, is fundamental to overall emissions reduction.

In 1.5°C compatible pathways, the share of fossil fuels in primary energy consumption would need to drop from more than 90% in 2017, to below 60% by 2030 and reach less than 5% by 2050. This could be possible through an extensive uptake of renewables: from less than 10% in 2017 to more than 60% by 2050 when combined with ~15% of other zero carbon technologies.

While South Africa’s climate change policy supports Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage (CCUS), it is unlikely to be deployed due to high technology costs. However, with the rapidly declining costs of renewables, and given the large wind and solar potential in the country, it would still be possible to reach 1.5 compatible pathways.18

South Africaʼs primary energy mix

exajoule per year

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High energy demand - Low CDR reliance
  • Negative emissions technologies via BECCS
  • Electricity
  • Nuclear and/or fossil with CCS
  • Biogas
  • Natural gas
  • Heat
  • Green hydrogen
  • Biofuel
  • Oil and e-fuels
  • Renewables incl. Biomass
  • Biomass
  • Coal
  • Unabated fossil
Select a reference pathway:

In the 100%RE scenario, non-energy fossil fuel demand is not included.

South Africaʼs total CO₂ emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂/yr

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  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Historical emissions

1.5°C compatible emissions benchmarks

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Key emissions benchmarks of Paris compatible Pathways for South Africa. The 1.5°C compatible range is based on the Paris Agreement compatible pathways from the IPCC SR1.5 filtered with sustainability criteria. The median (50th percentile) to 5th percentile and middle of the range are provided here. Relative reductions are provided based on the reference year.

Reference year
Reference year
Year of net zero GHG
incl. BECCS excl. LULUCF and novel CDR
Total GHG
270 to 354
110 to 189
72 to 134
Relative to reference year in %
−39 %
−51 to −35%
−67 %
−80 to −65%
−79 %
−87 to −76%
Total CO₂
201 to 271
42 to 131
11 to 64
Relative to reference year in %
−41 %
−56 to −41%
−81 %
−91 to −71%
−93 %
−98 to −86%

All information excluding LULUCF emissions and novel CDR approaches. BECCS are the only carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies considered in these benchmarks

All values are rounded