A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Net Zero in South Africa

An oil rig
A Journalist’s Guide to Covering Net Zero in South Africa

Net zero, unlike climate change, has evolved from scientific concept to policy in a much shorter period since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report in 2014, stating that global warming can only be stopped if net anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions reach zero. 

A year later, in 2015, the UNFCCC Paris Agreement  was signed, which committed parties to reach the global peak of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible. In response to climate change, the UNFCCC’s Paris Agreement provides legally binding international standards. It was adopted by 196 Parties at COP21 in Paris on 12 December 2015, and it came into force on 4 November 2016.  

Following this, Bhutan (2015), Sweden (2017) and the United Kingdom (2019) pledged targets to reach net zero by 2045 and 2050 respectively. In 2020, South Africa committed to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. You can find South Africa’s commitment to net zero in its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).  

By 2019 net zero pledges covered 16% of the global economy, rising to 91% this year according to a new IMF analysis.  

Reaching net zero requires each country to commit to climate mitigation targets i.e. reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions from sectors such as energy, transport, large industries as well as land use and agriculture. However, pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – fall short of what is required to bring greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and other hydrofluorocarbons to net zero by 2050 and limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.  

“The science is clear: Any hope of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees means achieving global net zero emissions by 2050.  But that 1.5 degree goal is on life support – and the machines are rattling. We are getting dangerously close to the point of no return,” said UN secretary general António Guterres at the opening of COP27 in Egypt. 

The energy sector is the source of around three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions today and holds the key to averting the worst effects of climate change. It requires an unprecedented scaling up of renewable energy technologies globally, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

At present, phasing out coal remains a top climate priority in the global climate agenda.  

The purpose of this tipsheet is to assist journalists in navigating key terms and policy positions on South Africa’s road to net zero and to provide journalists interested in covering the country's transition with background, story ideas and credible sources of information.


a climate change infographic
The State of Climate Action / Credit: World Resources Institute

South Africa’s climate risk profile  

The G20 Climate Risks Atlas shows that South Africa will face worsening impacts if it remains on a high-emissions pathway. Between 1990 and 2015, climate change caused almost half of all heat-related deaths in the country. By 2100, heat-related deaths will climb 25 times higher than in 1990. Longer heatwaves will push South Africa’s agriculture sector to the edge, causing losses of up to ZAR2 billion (USD114.6 million). 

By 2050, hundreds of thousands more people will be exposed to floods, costing the economy ZAR14 billion (USD$111.9 million). According to the report, the faster South Africa adopts low-carbon policies, the less the climate impacts cascade and the more manageable they become. Limiting temperature rise to 2°C will see the cost of climate impacts in South Africa drop from 5.03% of its GDP in 2050 under a high emissions scenario to 3.33%. The research shows that on a high carbon pathway, temperatures in South Africa could increase by as much as 2.1°C by 2050. On a low carbon pathway this drops to 1.2°C.

Global temperatures are slated to rise by as much as 2.7°C by 2100 based on current policies worldwide, which would likely render parts of the planet uninhabitable. 

A graph showing temperature rise
Source: G20 Climate Risk Atlas/ Credit: G20 Climate Risk Atlas ​​​​​​.


South Africa's commitment to reach net zero

South Africa is responsible for 1.06% of the world’s total carbon emissions. The world’s 13th highest emitter, it is the largest emitter in Africa.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), South Africa’s updated mitigation targets submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last year represent a significant progression from the first Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC).

South Africa’s NDC follows a peak, plateau and decline trajectory over the next decade. The country has committed to a fixed target for carbon emission levels of 398-510 MtCO2e by 2025, and 350-420 MtCO2e by 2030, compared to 398 and 614 Mt CO2e between 2025 and 2030, as communicated in the first NDC.  

The country’s Low Emissions Strategy (LEDS 2050) sets out the targets and sectors that are required to reduce emissions to reach the 2050 goal. In most developing countries, the full implementation of these measures will require international support, including technology transfer, skills development and financial assistance. South Africa aims to access significantly higher levels of climate finance during the periods of implementation of the NDC, with a view to achieving a floor of USD 8 billion per year by 2030 according to the UNDP.  

South Africa’s energy subsidies tripled since 2017 hitting ZAR 172 billion in 2020 according to a report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) released in January 2022. This included bailouts for carbon intensive state-owned companies like Eskom as well as support for the oil and gas sectors. This exceeds spending on policing, defense and state security combined, even as pollution from fossil fuel costs South Africans ZAR 550 billion each year in environmental harm and damage to public health.  

The report highlights that South Africa’s fiscal policies are not in line with its energy targets and environmental imperatives.  

A chart showing south africa's emissions
South Africa’s CO2 emissions per capita / Credit: Our World In Data.


Perspectives on energy and climate change in South Africa 

A 2021 Social Attitudes Survey by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) found that 44% of South African respondents were climate change deniers. However, it also stressed that awareness of the climate crisis has increased between 2007 and 2017, with the proportion of people who had never heard of the term ‘climate change’ dropping from 27% to just 8%. Research Director and Coordinator for the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) at the HSRC, Dr Ben Roberts, who led the study, believes this shift could have been precipitated partly by increasing climatic shocks and growing media attention to the climate crisis.  

Roberts noted that a large share of the public is still supportive of coal-based energy supply. “Because of the level of poverty in South Africa, and the level of economic strain in recent years, people primarily want a reliable source of energy and one that’s relatively affordable – whether it’s coal or renewable energy,” he says. Gaining a better understanding of public sentiment is important to inform a just transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and sustainable society. 

The findings show that while awareness of climate change had increased, most people still had only a shallow understanding of the issue: just a third of South Africans know at least a fair amount about climate change. (Figure 1.) The study also revealed a stubborn, significant minority of one in three did not believe in the reality of climate change. 

A bar chart showing climate change knowledge levels
Source: HSRC SASAS 2017, DSI/NRF climate change and energy module/ Credit HSRC.

However, South Africa’s current electricity crisis has drawn much attention to its current and future energy plans given that several of the country’s coal-fired power stations have reached their end of life, leaving the country with little capacity to keep a steady and reliable supply of energy to the national grid. At the same time, South Africa’s position on the world stage at COP on climate change and its domestic energy policies have historically been at odds with each other. This, coupled with Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe publicly positioning climate advocacy and action as an ideological lobby, adds to increasingly polarized views and conversations on climate change issues.  

Plans to decarbonize the energy system and other high carbon-emitting industries now coincide with a turning point for South Africa as it moves to fulfil its commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change and secure the national energy grid. This has also drawn increasing media attention to South Africa’s Just Transition plans as the focus moves to the socio-economic impact of moving away from coal and other fossil fuels amid a worsening energy crisis both domestically and internationally.  

Getting better at reporting it

The South African media landscape has plenty of room to improve coverage on South Africa’s journey to net zero in the context of climate change risks and opportunities.  

Often, journalists fail to unpack the risks of inaction on climate change (like reducing emissions) or the solutions to fix it while focusing on the economic risks of a move away from coal in the short term. Recent studies show that media coverage is still heavily reliant on international news wires as a source of climate change stories.

South African media can improve coverage by scrutinizing claims of fossil fuel companies better. This is because historically fossil fuels have a bad reputation for transparency and are known for spreading disinformation. The COP27 Look, Listen page unpacks how they do this. Here is a great source on dealing with skeptics.  

In addition, the full extent of the crisis caused by fossil fuels is sometimes poorly unpacked through accurate scientific and local references while journalists generate false balance by giving an equal platform to small groups of climate deniers and the larger population of scientists finding otherwise.  

Economists have differing views on transition risks, fossil fuel commodities, divestment, and the global energy market. Their comments must be carefully scrutinized against the backdrop of credible new research. 

At the same time, South Africa’s Just Energy Transition will have to be examined at every stage to ensure that the country is on track to meet its targets, and that the public and policymakers are aware of localized challenges relating to the transition and its impact on people and communities.  

Here are several local and international publications who sometimes get it right: 

South Africa’s reliance on coal  

South Africa is one of the most carbon-intensive economies in the world; three times higher than the global average. At present, South Africa is still heavily reliant on coal to produce electricity. Coal makes up around 80% of power generation and is responsible for the bulk of the country’s emissions. Other sources of emissions include petrochemical processes such as coal to liquid fuels, steel industries, transport, waste and agriculture. Transforming these sectors will be immensely important for the country to reach its mitigation targets.  

Coal is expected to fall to less than 60% by 2030 when several old coal-fired power stations are decommissioned, and new renewable energy technologies are expanded. The Integrated Energy Resource Plan (2019) however plans to develop two new coal-fired power stations scheduled for 2023 and 2027 respectively onto the grid which will add 750MW of new power. A study released by the Energy Systems Research Group (ESRG) at the University of Cape Town has found that the Department of Minerals Resources and Energy’s plans to procure this 1,500MW of new coal-powered electricity will cost at least ZAR 23 billion (about $1.5 billion) more than a least-cost optimal electricity plan for South Africa and will result in 25,000 economy-wide job losses by 2030. 

“Our modeling shows that under the two scenarios tested, new investments into coal-based power generation are costly and unnecessary for South Africa. Building the planned 1,500MW of coal-fired power would both increase greenhouse gas emissions and power system costs,” wrote Jesse Burton, researcher at ESRG and co-author of the report. 

A graph with CO2 emissions in south africa by fuel type
CO2 emissions by fuel type / Credit: Global Carbon Project.


Decommissioning coal in South Africa  

State power utility Eskom plans to decommission 10 coal-fired power stations between 2020 and 2036.   

South Africa’s first coal-fired power station went offline on October 31, 2022. Komati Power Station in Middleburg, Mpumalanga is regarded as a litmus test for South Africa’s transition away from coal to be just and equitable, leaving no one behind. The station is set to be repurposed into a renewable energy (solar and wind) hub which will also include agriculture (aquaponics) and battery storage. Three other stations will follow suit over the next five years, taking a combined capacity of 4,700MW off the grid. The idea is to duplicate this model at all the power stations slated for decommissioning over the next fifteen years. By 2036, 22,000MW of generation capacity or half of the current installed (coal) capacity would have been taken offline.  

On November 3, 2022, the World Bank announced a finance deal to support state power utility Eskom’s Just Energy Transition Project. According to the bank, the $497 million project will support Eskom to decommission, repurpose and create new opportunities for the impacted people of Mpumalanga province, which has 12 of South Africa’s coal-fired power plants and is home to 83% of South Africa’s coal production. South Africa regards natural gas (which emits methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere) as a bridging or transition fuel in its energy transition, and plans are afoot to include gas in its future energy mix.  

Financing South Africa’s net zero commitments  

No move away from coal, oil or gas can succeed without a just transition. The International Labor Organization defines a just transition as “greening the economy in a way that is as fair and inclusive as possible to everyone concerned, creating decent work opportunities and leaving no one behind.” For the average person, a just transition from a carbon-based to a green economy means safeguarding the jobs of all those who now work in the carbon-based economy and providing additional job opportunities.  

“The scale of transformation required to get to net zero is unprecedented, and it needs to be achieved at a phenomenal pace. Without careful planning and a collaborative approach there is a real risk of leaving some of the world’s poorest communities behind, resulting in stranded markets as well as stranded assets. This would ultimately make a successful, global transition impossible, and would also cause social unrest and deepening inequality. We must work together to ensure emerging markets are not left behind,” said Simon Connell, Global Head, Sustainability Strategy, Standard Chartered.

South Africa will need USD$500 billion to reach net zero. This could amount to 4.4% of the country’s GDP every year until 2050. During the World Leaders Summit at COP27 on 7 November, President Cyril Ramaphosa of the Republic of South Africa launched the new JET Investment Plan prepared by the South African government as envisaged in the Political Declaration. The Plan covers three priority sectors for finance: the energy sector as well as electric vehicles and green hydrogen.

In a joint statement, the International Partners Group (IPG), chaired by the UK and comprised of France, Germany, the UK, the US and the EU, said a ‘just' approach underpins the plan, aiming to ensure that those most directly affected by a transition from coal – workers and communities including women and girls – are not left behind. It identifies $98 billion in financial requirements over five years to begin South Africa's 20-year energy transition. Investment will be required from both public and private sectors. In addition to the World Bank’s concessional (low interest rate) loan to Eskom, the South African government has signed an agreement with the IPG for financial support totaling USD$8.5 million to support an accelerated move away from coal. A task team has been established to determine the terms of the finance agreement with South Africa pushing for a sizeable percentage of the finance to be concessional or grant funding owing to these countries' obligations under the Paris Agreement to finance developing countries as they endeavor to transition to low carbon economies. 

The IPG's initial $8.5 billion funding package includes: 

  • $2.6 billion through the Climate Investment Funds Accelerating Coal Transition Investment Plan (CIF ACT); 
  • $1 billion from France 
  • $1 billion from Germany 
  • $1.8 billion from the UK 
  • $1 billion from the US 
  • $1 billion from the EU 

“I congratulate President Ramaphosa for the great progress that has been made on the South Africa Just Energy Transition Partnership. In one year since COP[26], South Africa, along with the UK and our friends in the International Partners Group, have shown how serious we are about making the changes we need to halt climate change. South Africa's JET Investment Plan paves the way for a sustainable and fair transition away from coal and towards cleaner forms of energy, building the foundations for a strong green economy,” said Rishi Sunak, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and Chair of the International Partners Group. 

Civil society organizations have highlighted the benefits of a Just Transition. In South Africa these include the the National Business Initiative (NBI), research hub TIPS, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) and global think tank E3G.

An infographic showing a healthy fossil fuel economy
A Just Energy Transition for a healthy fossil fuel free world / Credit: Health and Climate Network.

Studies have found that a just energy transition is a chance for economies to start again with a clean slate and do things differently. In the Global South, where many cities are growing and where electricity generation is inadequate, opportunities abound, according to researchers who argue that energy poverty and access must be brought boldly into the Just Transition debate. Equitable energy policies often improve energy access and affordability, procedural justice, economic participation and community ownership, and health and environmental impacts according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's definition.  

Aligning these plans with the country’s developmental agenda will have benefits. According to CoBenefits these can include economic diversification, skills integration, and localized clean energy. 

An FAQ graphic
Frequently Asked Questions on net zero in South Africa / Credit: Earth Journalism Network.

Suggested story themes 

  • Break down the finance South Africa has so far secured for a Just Energy Transition and the remaining financial gaps. 
  • What risks will South Africa face if it fails to transition to a low carbon economy by 2050? In contrast, what benefits will the country enjoy from aligning its climate commitments to its developmental agenda? 
  • How will the current war in Europe affect how South Africa approaches its move away from coal in the short term? 
  • South Africa experienced a coal export boom in 2022 owing to the war in Ukraine. How long is the current demand for coal expected to remain this way? 
  • Is the current Integrated Energy Resource Plan 2019 (IRP19) in line with South Africa’s updated NDC? What needs to change? 
  • How will the African National Congress’s (ANC) December 2022 elective conference affect climate policy? 
  • How is the climate change bill poised to solidify South Africa’s commitment towards reaching net zero? 
  • How will Mpumalanga be affected by the decommission of coal-fired power and what are government’s plans for workers and the local economy? 
  • How can South Africa’s carbon tax raise the finances needed for mitigation and is it effective in its current form? 
  • How are big polluters in South Africa using the carbon market to offset their emissions elsewhere – and how effective are these measures in reducing their actual carbon footprint? 
  • Are domestic finance institutions aligning with the goals of the Paris Agreement and how can South Africa’s sectoral targets and carbon budgets assist in legislating this? 
  • Are companies and financial institutions divesting from fossil fuels in South Africa? What risks are associated with stranded assets in fossil-based economies like SA? 

Further reading

For a list of useful contacts to help your reporting please download the PDF linked below:

Banner image: An oil rig / Galen Crout via Unsplash.

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