Short introduction on South Africa’s emissions

Although CO2 is the driving force behind the temperature changes, other gases such as methane (CH4) also contribute their share to global warming, for example through the exploitation of gas fields, and emissions by livestock. While methane is emitted much less than CO2 on a global scale, it is a much stronger greenhouse gas (GHG). Scientists estimated the relative strength of the important Kyoto greenhouse gases so that we can convert all emissions to an equivalent of CO2 emissions. For example, the emission of one ton of methane has approximately the warming effect of 25 tons of CO2. The factor of 25 reflects the climate forcing on a 100-year time horizon, following the Global Warming Potential presented in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4).

With greenhouse gas emissions of approximately the equivalent of 532.9 mega tonnes of CO2 (Mt CO2eq), South Africa contributed 1.11% to the global greenhouse gas emissions of 2017 (rank 17 - incl. EU27 on rank 3). All emissions estimates exclude emissions and absorption from land, which result from activities such as cutting down or planting of forests (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry: LULUCF). Emissions from bunker fuels (international aviation and shipping) were also excluded, as they are not accounted for in national totals.

For 2030, South Africa’s global contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is projected to stay at a similar level of approximately 1.13% (636.5 mega tonnes of CO2 equivalent / rank 16 - incl. EU27 on rank 4). The emissions projections for South Africa were derived by downscaling the Shared Socio-Economic Pathways’ (SSPs) “Middle-of-the-Road” baseline marker scenario SSP2. These pathways describe certain narratives of socio-economic developments and were, i.a., used to derive greenhouse gas emissions scenarios that correspond to these developments. SSP2 is a narrative with little shifts in socio-economic patterns compared to historical ones, and is connected to medium socio-economic challenges for both climate mitigation and adaptation. While different models were used for each storyline, per SSP (SSPs1-5) one model was chosen as representative “marker scenario”. As the emissions projections are not readily available on country-level, but national estimates are important, the pathways were downscaled in the aftermath. In 2017, South Africa represented 0.75% of the global population. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2017 were 0.61% of the global GDP.

Looking at the highest contributing emissions sectors and gases separately, we find that in 2017 the highest contributing emissions sectors were Energy and Agriculture (77.5% and 9.8%). Amongst the greenhouse gases that are considered in the Kyoto Protocol, the strongest contributor with 82.5% was CO2. This was followed by CH4 emissions, with a significantly lower share of 11.8%. When not considering the sectors and gases independently, but the sector-gas combinations instead, Energy CO2 and IPPU CO2 (75.7% and 6.5%) represented the largest emissions in 2017.

Greenhouse gas mitigation and Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC)

In 2015, the majority of countries agreed to the Paris Agreement (PA), with the goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” (Article 2.1.a). Countries stated their pledges and targets towards achieving the PA’s goals in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). With Article 4.4 of the Paris Agreement, Parties decided that “Developed country Parties should continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets. Developing country Parties should continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances.”

In its NDC, the country communicates that “In keeping with South Africa’s commitment to progress its contribution to the global effort to mitigate climate change in line with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, South Africa’s mitigation component of its INDC moves from a”deviation from business-as-usual” form of commitment and takes the form of a peak, plateau and decline GHG emissions trajectory range. South Africa’s emissions by 2025 and 2030 will be in a range between 398 and 614 Mt CO2-eq [AR4], as defined in national policy. […] Peak, plateau and decline (PPD) is a GHG emissions trajectory range after mitigation. The starting point for PPD considered here is 2020 year-end.” (NDC, p. 6, GWP: p. 8). The country further indicates that “This level of effort will enable South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions to peak between 2020 and 2025, plateau for approximately a decade and decline in absolute terms thereafter.” (NDC, p. 7). South Africa also estimates that “The national carbon budget range for the period 2021-2025 is 1.99 -3.01 Gt CO2-eq [AR4] and for 2026-2030 is in the range of 1.99 to 3.07 Gt CO2-eq [AR4].” (NDC, p. 11). The availability of national estimates of emissions mitigation targets and pathways in line with countries’ NDCs is of great importance when, e.g., aggregating to global emissions to then derive, i.a., the resulting end-of-century warming levels. The outlined contribution is assessed to be conditional, as “The INDC is put forward within the context of equitable access to sustainable development” (NDC, p. 7).

In terms of coverage, the target is “economy-wide” (NDC, p. 7), with all “IPCC major categories: energy, IPPU, waste and AFOLU (agriculture, forestry and other land use)” (NDC, p. 7) addressed. Furthermore, in its NDC, South Africa mentions that it covers “six greenhouse gases (GHGs), with a material focus on three GHGs: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). Sources considered are the ones in the latest GHG inventory” (NDC, p. 7). We assume all Kyoto GHGs besides NF3 to be covered. For NF3, e.g., PRIMAP-hist v2.1 has no historical emissions data available for South Africa. NF3 has only been added to the Kyoto GHG basket for the Kyoto Protocol’s second period. It is merely reported by few countries and contributed less than 0.01% to global Kyoto GHG emissions in 2017 (exclLU and exclBF, based on PRIMAP-hist v2.1 HISTCR, in AR4, with its share being influenced by the few available data). The country additionally communicates that “trace gases are less material and data is more uncertain than for the three major gases. For the current GHG inventory, submitted to the UNFCCC as part of SA’s first biennial update report (2014), data was gathered for CO2, CH4 and N2O. Certain HFCs and PFCs were reported on in the IPPU (industrial processes and product use) sectors. Fluorinated gases are estimated to have contributed less than 0.3% to the total GHG budget over the period 2000 - 2010. A process is under way to estimate SF6 emissions from power generation. Uncertainties such as the above are to be bounded over time.” (NDC, p. 11).

AFOLU is included in South Africa’s contribution “as one of the major IPCC categories. The greater uncertainty in AFOLU emissions should be noted, as well as the intention to reduce uncertainty over time.” (NDC, p. 9). Further, “Uncertainty should be noted in two respects. Firstly, the greater uncertainty in AFOLU emissions (relative to other sectors) has been noted above. South Africa’s current understanding is that our land sector is estimated to be a net sink. The intention is to reduce uncertainty in data over time, with a view to a comprehensive accounting approach for land-based emissions and removals.” (NDC, p. 11).

The NDC-assessment is based on South Africa’s NDC submitted to the UNFCCC in November 2016.

The Figure below provides additional information, regarding both the baseline emissions used in our assessment and the quantified mitigated pathways for South Africa.

Baseline emissions and mitigated emissions pathways based on the country’s Nationally Determined Contribution. In terms of national emissions, we look at the SSP2 baseline marker scenario, and the emissions of all IPCC sectors. Contributions from LULUCF are excluded (exclLU), and the emissions are based on GWPs from AR4. The left panel (a) shows the baseline emissions, indicating the contributions of the Kyoto Greenhouse Gases CO2, CH4, N2O, and the basket of F-gases to the national emissions. If we could extract baseline data exclLU from the NDC, you can see their values as black squares (converted from GWP SAR to AR4 if needed). In the right panel (b), the quantified mitigated emissions pathways are shown, based on information from the country’s NDC and also on non-NDC emissions baselines, per target conditionality and range (marked un-/conditional best/worst). Even though not all countries have targets with different conditionalities or ranges, we need assumptions for all four cases to build one global pathway per conditionality plus range combination and to derive corresponding temperature estimates. Therefore, we indicate these four pathways here. Per combination, we performed several quantifications with differing assumptions and show the median and the minimal and maximal pathways here. Additionally, if we could quantify the targets based on data extracted purely from the NDC - or if the targets were directly given in absolute emissions, these targets are shown as squares (in the GWP originally given in the NDC).


Data sources and further information

  • Historical emissions: PRIMAP-hist v2.1 (Guetschow et al., 2016, 2019).
  • Historical socio-economic data: PRIMAP-hist Socio-Eco v2.1 (Guetschow et al., 2019).
  • Projected emissions and socio-economic data: downscaled SSPs (Guetschow et al., 2020, 2020).
  • NDC quantifications: NDCmitiQ (Guenther et al., 2020, 2021).
  • GDP is given in purchasing power parity (PPP).
  • Main emissions sectors (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC): Energy, Industrial Processes and Product Use (IPPU), Agriculture and LULUCF (Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry), also named AFOLU (Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use), and Waste.
  • Kyoto GHG: basket of several GHGs, namely carbon dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), and since the second Kyoto Protocol period (2013-20) additionally nitrogen fluoride (NF3).
  • Global Warming Potentials (GWPs): GHGs have very different warming potentials. To make them comparable and for aggregation purposes, GWPs are used (how much energy will 1 ton of a certain gas absorb over a defined period of time, relative to the same mass of CO2?).


1 Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), 14473 Potsdam, Germany