Energy Information Administration

United States
Energy Information Administration


January 2000

South Africa: Environmental Issues

South Africa's energy sector significantly impacts local and regional environmental conditions. Coal, (mostly bituminous, with a high ash content), is the primary fuel produced and consumed in South Africa. Production and consumption of coal has serious effects on the environment, leading to air and water pollution, while also contributing to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In rural areas of South Africa, approximately three million households burn fuel wood in order to meet their energy needs. Not only can the gathering of fuel wood prove unsustainable and lead to deforestation, but also, the fuel wood frequently is burned in enclosed spaces without adequate ventilation. This can result in harmful levels of pollutants in rural homes, leading to respiratory health problems and other ailments.

In October 1997, the White Paper on Environmental Management was completed. This policy was developed through the participatory process known as the Consultative National Environmental Policy Process (CONNEPP) . This white paper provides the framework for environmental policy in South Africa, and addresses such issues as air, water and marine pollution, deforestation, energy efficiency and the conservation of biodiversity.

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism is the central policy-making body in South Africa. Environmental Minister Mohammed Valli Moosa recognizes the challenges facing his country, saying, "What we need is a greater emphasis on the so called 'brown' environmental issues which directly affect the living spaces of people on earth, such as proper control of pollution and waste in general".


The two major types of pollution in South Africa are air and marine pollution. The industrial sector is the prime contributor to air pollution. More than 90% of South Africa's electricity is generated from the combustion of coal that contains approximately 1.2% sulphur and up to 45% ash. Coal combustion can lead to particulate matter in the air, as well as contribute to acid rain. While major cities in South Africa do not possess pollution levels comparable to many major cities in China, India or Mexico, pollutant levels are not insignificant. Nitrogen dioxide levels in Cape Town, South Africa, for instance, were significantly higher than those measured in Calcutta, and surpassed the World Health Organization's annual mean guideline for air quality standard of 50 micrograms per cubic meter.

In addition to industrial pollution, low-level atmospheric pollution often results from coal combustion in stoves, as well as coal-heated boilers that are found in hospitals and factories. Vehicular emissions, while not nearly as significant as in cities such as New York, Tokyo or Los Angeles, have a negative impact on the environment. Regulations apply to diesel-powered vehicles and are geared towards ensuring proper maintenance. Enforcement, however, is weak and sporadic.

South Africa also must concern itself with marine pollution. South Africa is especially vulnerable to oil spills due to the high volume of oil transported around the country's coasts by ship from the Middle East to Europe and the Americas. The South African Department of Transport and the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism cooperate to ensure both prevention of oil spills and clean-up in the event of accidents. Measures supported by the Department of Transport include the maintenance of at least a 12 mile distance from the South African coast, prosecution of ship owners if any oil is discharged from their ships, control of aircraft patrols over shipping lanes, and contingency plans for any oil spills that occur.

Finally, South Africa experiences negative environmental impacts from mining activities. Pollution from mining activities is probably the most direct cause of groundwater pollution in South Africa. Furthermore, small waste coal dumps cause both pollution and safety problems, as waste coal may spontaneously ignite.

Energy Use and Carbon Emissions

Of the 4.3 quadrillion Btu (quads) of primary energy consumed in South Africa in 1997, 74% was coal, 22% oil and 1.6% natural gas. Electricity generation is responsible for a significant portion of coal usage, with more than 90% of South Africa's electricity generated from coal. While South Africa accounts for 38% of the total primary energy consumed in all of Africa, in a world context, South Africa is only responsible for 1.1% of total primary energy consumption. Due to the high content of coal in the energy mix, however, South Africa's carbon emissions are proportionately greater in comparison with many other countries. In 1997, South Africa emitted 98.9 million metric tons of carbon. This amounted to 42% of Africa's energy-related carbon emissions and 2% of world energy-related carbon emissions.

Over the past 25 years, primary energy consumption in South Africa's residential and commercial sectors has risen only very gradually. The slow increase of primary energy consumption in the residential sector can be attributed partially to South Africa's reliance on fuel wood, a non-commercial energy source. Fuel wood is still the largest source of household energy in remote rural populations. It is estimated that fuel wood meets the daily energy needs of more than one third of South Africa's population.

South Africa's transportation and industrial sector energy consumption and carbon emissions have exhibited a significant rise over the past 25 years. In 1996, the industrial sector consumed 2.16 quads of energy (50% of total primary energy consumption) and emitted 55.6 million metric tons of carbon (56% of total carbon emissions from fossil fuels). Meanwhile, in 1996, the transportation sector consumed 1.25 quads of energy (29% of total primary energy consumption) and emitted 27.5 million metric tons of carbon (nearly 28% of total carbon emissions).

Energy and Carbon Intensity

Since 1970, South Africa consistently has consumed the most energy and carbon per dollar of GDP among major energy consumers in Africa. In 1997, South African energy intensity measured 33.3 thousand Btu per $1997, higher than other major African energy producing countries like Algeria, Egypt and Libya, and approaching China's energy intensity of 41.4 thousand Btu per $1997. South Africa's carbon intensity trends have mirrored energy intensity trends over the past 27 years. In 1997, South Africa's carbon intensity was approximately 0.8 metric tons per thousand $1997. This is far higher than in most other African countries. Again, this is largely due to the heavy use of coal in the South African economy.

While most countries have energy conservation regulations, energy efficiency standards in South Africa are lacking. Estimates suggest that energy costs represent about 14% of South Africa's GDP, and that improvements in energy efficiency of 10-20% could result in a GDP increase of between 1-3%. While there has been recognition over the past few years of the benefits that would accrue from the introduction of energy efficiency standards, most have not been implemented. Barriers to improvements in energy efficiency include a low-cost energy supply in coal, a lack of public awareness concerning operating costs of appliances, inadequate long-term policies, and absence of codes and standards.

In February 1999, the U.S.-South African Binational Commission Sustainable Energy Committee met and agreed to focus its efforts on improving energy efficiency, while also concentrating its attention on renewable energy, clean power generators, and natural gas technologies. New initiatives announced by this committee include:

  A pilot study to evaluate inactive power plants and potentially convert them to fluidized bed technology. This technology makes it possible to convert power from waste coal, thereby minimizing emissions.
  Efforts to commercialize ultraviolet (UV) waterworks throughout South Africa. UV waterworks is an energy efficient water purification system that utilizes UV to disinfect water.
  A motor challenge workshop to improve industrial motor efficiency

Per Capita Energy Use and Carbon Emissions
South Africa is one of the most industrialized countries in Africa. In comparison to "developed" countries, however, South Africa has lower levels of automobile and home appliance ownership per capita, and consumes a higher proportion of "non-commercial" energy. As a result, South Africa's per capita levels of energy consumption and energy-related carbon emissions, while higher than in most of Africa, are lower than in the United States and many other developed countries.

South Africa's per capita energy consumption and per capita energy-related carbon emissions have remained fairly constant over the past two and a half decades. In 1997, per capita energy consumption in South Africa was 99.2 million Btu, while per capita energy-related carbon emissions registered 2.3 million metric tons of carbon.

Renewable Energy
Historically in South Africa, incentives for investments in both energy efficient technologies and renewable energy have been minimal. Partially due to the low price of coal in South Africa, there has been little incentive for government funding or private support for renewable energy sources.

One incentive for action might be the significant percentage of the population that does not have access to grid electricity. Approximately 20% of rural populations are expected to remain without access to grid electricity over the next 20 years. Due to the dispersed nature of villages, modular, renewable energy technologies are an economically efficient and environmentally benign means of providing electricity to a larger percentage of the population. South Africa has significant solar resources, and the potential for this resource to reduce coal consumption and provide electricity to rural villages is beginning to be exploited.

Solar power will be introduced into 50,000 homes as a result of a joint agreement between Eskom, the national power supplier of South Africa, and Shell International Renewables. A solar panel, charge-controlled battery and a metering unit can be installed in homes, without owners having to pay the large upfront costs often associated with such systems. Customers purchase a magnetic card that activates the solar home for a period of thirty days. After thirty days, customers must purchase another card to activate the system. The monthly cost to consumers will be about $8, approximately the same amount of money that they are currently paying for more energy inefficient and unsustainable fossil fuels.

In 1997, 5.2% of electricity capacity was derived from nuclear power. Efforts are underway to explore options for converting South Africa's SAFARI nuclear research reactor from one utilizing weapons grade uranium, to one that can operate with low enriched uranium.

South Africa in a Regional Perspective
Issues such as acid rain and climate change are regional or global by nature. From a South African perspective, this means primarily cooperation with fellow members of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) on environmental issues.

South Africa and other members of the SADC signed a memorandum of understanding in August 1995 to establish a Southern African Power Pool (SAPP). Limited electricity trade is taking place among member utilities. South Africa is currently negotiating natural gas trade agreements with Mozambique and Namibia. Such agreements may increase the demand for natural gas and eventually, perhaps, other "cleaner" fuels, while concomitantly reducing the pollutants that would have been emitted as a result of coal combustion.

South Africa participates in the Renewable Energy for African Development program (READ), which was set up in 1993 to promote cooperation between African countries and U.S. industry, government, and academia on renewable energy issues. The non-profit program promotes sustainable rural development through appropriate use of renewable energy technologies.

South Africa and Lesotho also are joining efforts during construction of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, all five phases of which are to be completed by 2020. The purpose of the largest water supply scheme ever undertaken in Africa is to both provide needed water supplies to South Africa, and to provide hydropower to Lesotho. Currently, South Africa consumes 80% of the region's water resources yet possesses only 10% of the region's water. Upon completion, water will be supplied to the industrial heartland of South Africa and about 180MW of electricity will be supplied to Lesotho. Environmental groups, however, fear that the large dams constructed in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project will not only force people from their homes, but submerge fertile farmland and forests and destroy valuable fisheries and ecosystems.

South Africa in the 21st Century
South Africa is initiating efforts to improve environmental conditions in the country. South Africa is currently working in cooperation with the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in implementing a South African Energy and Demand Efficiency Standard (SAEDES) for non-residential buildings. The final draft standards were to be completed by the end of 1999, followed by field tests of the standards in five buildings.

Not only are environmental standards being established in South Africa, but environmental groups are also beginning to receive attention. Sasol, a South African coal and synthetic fuels company, had plans to develop the Sigma Northwest strip mine (located on the banks of the Vaal River). In 1999, the Save the Vaal Environment Group (SAVE) won its petition to the South African government, forcing Sasol Mining Ltd. to exclude the Sigma North-West strip mine from its operations. The process has proven beneficial to all parties, creating a forum to discuss conflicting viewpoints concerning development and its effect on the environment. Sasol Mining and SAVE agree that it is essential to sustainably utilize the Vaal Barrage Reservoir, and that its environment is dependent on the long-term cooperation of both parties.

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