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South Africa Ambition gap

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

1.5°C compatible pathways

On September 2021, the Government submitted its updated NDC based on the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) recommendations target of 350-420 MtCO₂e/yr including LULUCF, by 2030 and conditional on international support. This would translate in emissions reductions of 366-436 MtCO₂e/yr excluding LULUCF by 2030 or 20-33% below 2010 levels by 2030.1

A 1.5°C consistent emissions pathway for South Africa would require emission reductions of 39-53% below 2010 levels by 2030 or 249-325 MtCO₂e/yr by 2030 (excluding LULUCF). The achievement of the most ambitious end of South Africa’s 2030 target (366 MtCO₂e, excl. LULUCF) would place the country very close to being on a domestic 1.5°C compatible pathway.

However, under current policies South Africa would, if it were to fully implement the Integrated Resources Plan (2019), achieve the higher bound of its NDC target which lies outside of the 1.5°C compatible range.3

Long term pathway

South Africa’s Low Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) targets an emissions level of 212-428 MtCO₂e/yr including LULUCF, translating in 229-445 MtCO₂e/yr excluded LULUCF by 2050 or 19-58% below 2010 levels.3,4 In contrast, a 1.5°C compatible pathway requires South Africa to reach emissions no higher than 107 MtCO₂e/yr by 2050, excluding LULUCF which translates in 88% below 2010 levels.28

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 72-134 MtCO₂e by 2050 to achieve net zero GHG emissions in that same year. Models tend to rely on rather conservative assumptions in the development of renewable energy technologies. This tends to result in greater reliance on technological CDR than if a faster transition to renewables were achieved. 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. In addition, international support will need to be provided for technological carbon dioxide removal approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or direct air capture and storage (DAC).

1 Climate Action Tracker. South Africa’s Presidential climate commission recommends stronger mitigation target range for updated NDC: close to 1.5°C compatible | Climate Action Tracker. (2021).

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

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

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

5 Department of Energy, S. A. Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2019). (2019).

6 The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa. Political Declaration on the Just Energy Transition in South Africa. (2021).

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

8 Climate Analytics. Climate Transparency Report – South Africa. (2020).

9 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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 United Nations. World Urbanisation Prospects. (2018) doi:978-92-1-151517-6.

21 International Energy Agency (IEA). IEA Data and Statistics, Data Browser. World Energy Outlook. (2021).

22 Cilliers, Z. & Euston-Brown, M. Aiming for Zero-Carbon New Buildings in South African metros., (2018).

23 Department of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment. South Africa’s 4th Biennial Update Report To the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (2021).

24 Department of Forestry Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE). National GHG Inventory Report South Africa 2017. (2021).

25 Statistics South Africa. Economy slips into recession. (2019).

26 Statistics South Africa. Third wave of COVID and civil disorder pummel economy as GDP falls by 1,5%. (2020).

27 Statistics South Africa. National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) 2020. (2020).

28 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.


South Africaʼs total GHG emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂e/yr

Displayed values
Reference year
Reference year
1.5°C emissions level
NDC (conditional)
Ambition gap
  • 1.5°C compatible pathways
  • Middle of the 1.5°C compatible range
  • Current policy projections
  • 1.5°C emissions range
  • Historical emissions
2030 emissions levels
Current policy projections
NDC (conditional)
1.5°C emissions level
Ref. year 2010

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°C compatible pathways.19


South Africaʼs primary energy mix

petajoule per year

SSP1 Low CDR reliance
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
SSP1 High CDR reliance
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
Low Energy Demand
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
High Energy Demand - Low CDR reliance
20192030204020504 0006 0008 000
  • Nuclear and/or fossil with CCS
  • Unabated fossil
  • Renewables incl. Biomass
  • Negative emissions technologies via BECCS

South Africaʼs total CO₂ emissions

excl. LULUCF MtCO₂/yr

  • 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

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
Megatonnes CO₂ equivalent per year
249 to 325
102 to 166
65 to 107
Relative to reference year in %
−53 to −39%
−81 to −69%
−88 to −80%
Total CO₂
193 to 266
42 to 127
12 to 73
Relative to reference year in %
−56 to −40%
−90 to −71%
−97 to −84%