Decarbonising South Africa: A Brave but Necessary Mission

Electricity

South Africa has surely gained a privileged status in the African continent, boasting a strong economy, with a well-developed industrial and trade sector, an increasing urban population, and a constantly growing energy market.

Nonetheless, this performance comes at a high price: South Africa is one of the most carbon-intensive economies of all the world, as well as the only G20 country with a raising power carbon intensity. More than 50% of the country’s emission are the result of unsustainable power generation, which is related to productive sectors that are crucial for South Africa’s growth: private and public transportation, light and heavy industry, logistics, and access to energy of private households.

This heavy reliance on fossil fuels implies a chain effect on the overall national economy and welfare, which would lose a competitive advantage in comparison to other countries showing a higher degree of proactivity in pursuing the energy transition. As a matter of fact, multiple and reliable sectoral evidences connect renewable energy with more employment opportunities, effective environmental protection, reduced number of deaths due to urban pollution, brand-new market segments ready to be developed and, obviously, an improvement in all the energy-related indicators (wider access, increased efficiency, cheaper distribution, etc.).

However, every cloud has a silver lining: the South African government didn’t just stand and watch a situation which calls for radical interventions. A series of decarbonisation initiatives was undertaken by the national institutions, with the aim of keeping national GHG emissions within a range from 398 to 614 Mt carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, reducing coal dependence in electricity generation (to 55% in 2030 and 11% in 2050), and progressively decommissioning coal-fired power plants (roughly 11MW by 2030 and 35MW by 2050).

Can we then say we are witnessing a fully-fledged and inspiring energy revolution? Unfortunately not. The actions undertaken by South Africa made a point which, in the best-case scenario, will just be a starting one. The commitments formulated by the South African authorities aren’t bold enough to meet the internationally-agreed climate targets, and to confidently march in direction of our guiding light (keeping the average global temperature rise to below 1.5 °C).

That’s why, in its last dedicated analysis, RES4Africa envisions and proposes a more ambitious decarbonisation path for South Africa, characterised by far-reaching policy actions, with a stronger touch of derring-do: limitations to GHG emissions should be more radical, with a proposed goal of a 32% cut by 2030, aspiring to a 73% reduction by 2050. Other complementary actions are obviously required, consisting in financial and non-financial policy measures: a progressive penetration of renewables within the energy generation segment should be kickstarted, thanks to dedicated subsidies (and reduction of financing for fossil fuels), more transparent public procedures, and favourable conditions for investors. Further strings to our bow are interventions addressed to increasing efficiency in energy distribution (creation of decentralised generation infrastructures, more frequent maintenance of distribution networks), awareness and education campaigns, and, finally, exploration and implementation of new renewable energy sources: hydrogen and biomasses are promising candidates, especially for those hard-to-abate industrial sectors (i.e: heavy trucks segments, steel and glass processing, etc.).

In conclusion, we must remark how important South Africa’s role is. In addition to representing one of the strongest economies of the African continent, it has the potential and the responsibility of unleashing a proper energy revolution, becoming an inspiring model for the energy transition of many other countries. As hard as it sounds, there’s no plan B, and there will be no second chances.

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Roberto Vigotti

Roberto Vigotti

Roberto Vigotti is the Secretary General of RES4Africa Foundation, which gathers more than 30 stakeholders to accelerate the renewable energy transformation in Africa, with Africa and for Africa. In his 30+ year-long career he has covered various positions at Enel, University of Pisa, IEA and IRENA. When it was still considered an unlikely option, he was already convinced that deploying renewable energy in Africa would result in a positive socioeconomic impact for its population. In 2012, he therefore embarked on the RES4Africa adventure, to support a wider participation of private players in delivering investments in Africa. He also coordinates renewAfrica, an industry-backed Initiative that advocates the creation of a European comprehensive Programme for RE investments in Africa, to be promoted and owned by EU institutions

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