MechChem Africa

Considering the drought in the Western Cape, Rosalind dos Santos, MSc Eng (Met), BSc Eng (Chem), CEM, evaluates South Africa’s response to climate change.

Is South Africa’s response to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions jeopardising the future of young South Africans? Worldwide, civil society has taken greater action against governments that are perceived to not be serving their constituents. There is greater social accountability, and in many parts of the world climate change and the link to anthropogenic GHG emissions is clearly understood and a reduction in national GHG emissions is promoted.

In South Africa, however, we have yet to see the same level of social accountability that is apparent in other countries.

Rosalind Dos SantosPopulation pyramids produced by StatsSA, discussing South Africa’s demographic dividend, show most of our population under the age of 35. This young population will feel the first real effects of climate change that result from our inaction.

Climate change risk

The clear lack of priority given to environmental and climate-related risks in South Africa is evident when comparing the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risk Report and the Institute of Risk Management South Africa (IRMSA) Risk Report. In the WEF Global Risk Report, Extreme Weather Events, Natural Disasters and Failure of Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation risks are consistently high ranking from 2015 onwards, making up three of the top five risks in terms of likelihood and impact. On the other hand, the risk of Droughts in Sub-Saharan Africa is the only environmental risk identified in the IRMSA Risk Report. This risk is present in the mid-2016 and 2017 risks, ranking 4th in the top five risks in terms of likelihood, 1st in terms of impact in mid-2016 and 3rd in terms of impact in 2017. In all other years, environmental and climate-related risks are absent from the IRMSA Risk Report.

In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report 5, the climate change affected areas highlighted for Southern Africa are terrestrial ecosystems, livelihoods, health and/or economics. Further, there is high confidence that those living in poverty will feel the impacts of climate change, exacerbating other stressors in their lives. This is particularly relevant in South Africa where 56.8% of people live in poverty. Thus, there appears to be environmental, social and economic motivations to act to reduce GHG emissions.

The risk reports show that although climate change may be top of mind globally, it is not for South Africa. South Africa’s energy supply and associated economic activity is heavily reliant on its large coal resources. Focusing on reducing GHG emissions in South Africa would require a move away from coal, impacting our energy supply and economic activity. As such, there seems to be a financial incentive for South Africa to exploit fossil fuel resources and extend the timeline before climate change is dealt with.

An exception to this is renewable power generation, with the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind energy below the cost of non-renewable energy. Nonetheless, the electricity generation grid remains predominantly coal-fired power generation at 90% of Eskom’s power generation.

Whilst South Africa is a developing country, our per capita GHG emissions are higher than the global average (6.249 t of CO2e versus 4.936) and much higher than many other developing countries. As mentioned, this is largely due to our dependency on coal for energy, with energy being responsible for 78.7% of our latest country-level carbon footprint in 2010 (excluding forestry and other land use carbon sinks).

Are we already seeing the result of climate change bearing in mind that a single weather event does not demonstrate climate change? Water risks, both in terms of availability and quality, came to the fore in 2017 and will continue to be a key and high-ranking risk over the five-year horizon in many parts of South Africa. Two large municipalities are currently declared as disaster areas due to extreme water shortages, and this is one of the key climate change predictions: that Africa will become dryer. With lower than world average rainfall, South Africa is already water stressed and the key link of water in the energy sector (for steam production to turn turbines, to generate electricity or in the refining of oil for liquid fuels) should not be overlooked in terms of economic, environmental and social impact.

Possible solutions

The National Climate Change Response Strategy proposes using emission trajectory plans, sector emission reduction outcomes, carbon budgets, economic instruments and better data and information gathering, but was last published in 2011 ...

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