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

Current situation

A brief assessment on the current state of emissions, energy composition of the country, and key targets and commitments.

Emissions profile

Between 2000 and 2015 the average annual growth of South Africa’s net GHG emissions (including Forestry and Other Land Uses) was 1.43%, with the energy sector being the dominant contributor (78% of emissions in 2017). South Africa’s GHG emissions are predominantly CO2 from fuel combustion, while Methane (CH4) and Nitrous Oxide (N2O) combined constitute less than a quarter of emissions.6 The power sector produces 38% of total GHG emissions (excluding LULUCF), followed by industry (energy use), transport and buildings sectors.7

Mining, mineral beneficiation and coal-to-liquid fuel processing industries are the main drivers of industry energy-related CO2 emissions, which are directly related to the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. These industries accounted for approximately 17% of total GHG emissions in 2017.

The LULUCF sector provided a small, but increasing sink for emissions between 2009 and 2017 due to increasing forest cover and a decline in wood losses, due to increasing electrification.8

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.

South Africaʼs current GHG emissions


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Displayed values

By sector

  • Power
  • Industry (energy use)
  • Transport
  • Buildings
  • Fugitive emissions
  • Other
  • Agriculture
  • Industry (processes)
  • Waste
Energy (78%)Positive emissions ⟶⟵ LULUCF negative emissions

By greenhouse gas

  • CO₂
  • CH₄
  • N₂O
  • Other

Sectors by greenhouse gas

Industry (processes)

Energy system

South Africa’s primary energy supply is dominated by domestic coal, crude oil (mostly imported), renewables, gas and nuclear.9 Despite a rapid increase in renewables driven by early rounds of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP),10 the proportion of renewables in the overall energy mix remains a tiny ~6.8% in 2017, while around 75% of total primary energy supply is from coal.7

Historically, the development of South Africa’s economy was driven by the exploitation of cheap coal. Energy intensive industries like iron, steel, chemicals, petrochemicals and mining still dominate its energy demand profile. The industry and transport sectors together consumed about 70% of energy supply in 2016, predominantly in the form of electricity and coal.9

In October 2020 the government announced a post-covid economic recovery plan. This plan lacks requirements for low carbon technologies in new infrastructure investments, while supporting carbon-intensive sectors like coal, oil and gas, and mining.3

Targets and commitments

Economy-wide targets

Target type

Fixed level target

NDC target

Unconditional target

  • A medium-term goal of 398-614 MtCO2e/yr (incl. LULUCF) between 2025 and 2030 or 414-630 MtCO2e/yr (excl. LULUCF).19
  • 24% below to 15% above 2010 by 2030 (excl. LULUCF).
    • Draft NDC updated unconditional target as of March 30, 2021.20
  • For the period 2026-2030, annual GHG emissions of 398-440 MtCO2e.21
  • South Africa’s NDC does not specify whether its NDC is conditional or unconditional, so it has been interpreted as an unconditional target.3

Market mechanism

  • Not stipulated in NDC (2016).
  • The Carbon Tax Act came into effect on 1 June 2019, implementing an effective (taking into account offsets and allowances) carbon tax rate ranging from R6 to R48 per tonne of CO2e emitted. By design it will not have any impact on the price of electricity during the first phase (ending December 2022) and payment of the first tax installment was deferred by three months (to 31 October 2020) as a pandemic relief measure.11,12

Long-term target

  • South Africa’s Low Emissions Development Strategy (LEDS) targets an emissions level of 212-428 MtCO2e/yr (incl. LULUCF) by 2050, translating in 229-445 MtCO2e/yr (excl. LULUCF) or 21-59% below 2010 by 2050 (excl. LULUCF).3,14,13

Sector coverage


Greenhouse gas coverage


Sectoral targets


  • The Post-2015 National Energy Efficiency Strategy contains sector specific energy efficiency targets for industry, transport, public and commercial buildings, and agriculture to be achieved by 2030, but does not convert these into explicit emission reduction targets.6,16

Note: No sectoral targets were outlined in its 2016 NDC. However, in its 2nd National Communication (2016/7), South Africa announced ‘Sector Emission Targets’ (SETs) – previously known as ‘Desired Emission Reduction Outcomes’. SETs will be quantified in rolling five year phases which will be reviewed and updated at the end of each phase. South Africa’s emission reduction system enters its second phase in 2021.15


  • The 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) – the government’s capacity expansion plan for the electricity sector – introduced a carbon budget approach to constrain emissions from the sector to a cumulative 5470 MtCO2 in the years leading up to 2050.4


  • In its Green Transport Strategy: 2018-2050 the Department of Transport committed to a 5% reduction of emissions in the transport sector by 2050.17