Food for Thought: Pathways Towards South Africa’s Deep Decarbonisation

By Sanath Jaishankar, Climate Reality Leader

30 June 2017

South Africa, a country significantly dependent on carbon-emitting sectors of the economy, is in urgent need of a deep decarbonisation strategy. Nevertheless, the notably poor skills profile of the workforce, inflexibilities in the labour market, and the structure of the economy inhibit South Africa’s ability to deep decarbonise. The Deep Decarbonisation Pathways Project (DDPP), a collaborative global initiative that researches and demonstrates how countries can transition to very low-carbon economies, explored the potential deep decarbonisation pathways that South Africa could employ to achieve a 14 Gt CO2-eq cumulative energy sector carbon constraint.

The first pathway, called the Economic Structure Scenario, explored ways of reducing unemployment by stimulating growth in sectors with low-carbon emissions and high levels of labour necessity. The second pathway, the High Skills Scenario, aimed at injecting highly skilled labour into the economy—through improvements in the education and training sectors—, thereby significantly shifting the labour force. In terms of development, the Economic Structure scenario would be more successful in reducing short-run unemployment—halving the unemployment rate from 25% to 12% (Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation, 3), while the High Skills Scenario illustrates what would be essential to a decarbonised future in South Africa by achieving a long-run shift in the skillset of the labour market.

By equally focusing these pathways on both development and climate, the DDPP strategizes means in which South Africa, a developing country, could satisfy multiple objectives—eg., employment, income raise, greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, and a fundamental reduction of poverty and inequalities—while still decarbonising. In both pathways, the growth domestic product (GDP) per capita would increase by 170% by 2050 (Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation, 3). Yet, fundamentally, these two scenarios critically tackle the necessity to decarbonise South Africa’s electricity sector—an industry that is responsible for “just under half of national GHG emissions” (Pathways to Deep Decarbonisation, 4). Through each model, the electricity sector would completely phase-out of coal-fired power generation and see the the introduction of large amounts of solar and wind energy. In a cyclical process, more developed sectors would increase electricity use from more energy efficient technologies—ultimately providing a large scope for labour absorption.

However, these two pathways bring unique drawbacks that explain the divergence and necessity for two separate scenarios. In the Economic Structure Scenario, the basic structure of South Africa’s economy would fundamentally shift: the agriculture sector would expand significantly (citation), which would require the liquid fuel production sector to decarbonise more rapidly to offset the emissions of agriculture. On the other hand, the High Skills Scenario implements growth that maintains the current economic structure (thereby requiring the liquid fuel sector to decarbonise less), yet it elicits a much greater uncertainty of success in both reducing carbon emissions and achieving development goals than the Economic Structure Scenario; since the implementation and quality of education in South Africa has been historically poor (Brenda Modisaotsile, Failing Standard of Basic Education, 1), there is a large uncertainty of whether labourers will ever achieve the skills that are demanded in the more advanced sectors.

Ultimately, the DDPP provide us with two scenarios that achieve deep carbonisation, whilst retaining the development goals of South Africa. Each pathway comes with different drawbacks, and fundamentally require large levels of capital injections—something that the DDPP raise scepticism about. Each pathway also requires policy change and, more importantly, policy implementation. Yet, they provide significant insights into thinking about long-run development strategies that elevate South Africa’s development path to match the standards of already-developed countries. It is vital for South Africa to deviate from the development paths of West, and to strategize ways in which to uniquely achieve progressive development goals that are industry-setting. It is time for South Africa to guide and lead the developing world, particularly Africa, and not to “play catch up” to the already-developed world.

To learn more about the DDPP’s report on South African Deep Decarbonisation, click here

To read Brenda Modisaotsile’s brief, The Failing Standard of Basic Education, click here


Modisaotsile, Brenda Matshidiso. The Failing Standard of Basic Education in South Africa. Rep. no. 72. Africa Institute of South Africa, Mar. 2012. Web. 20 June 2017.

Altieri, K. et al. Rep. Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in South Africa. SDSN – IDDRI, 2015. Web. 20 June 2017

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of the African Climate Reality Project.