“South Africa is the world’s 12th-biggest source of greenhouse gases,” Bloomberg Green, the environment section of financial website Bloomberg, said in a March 2021 report.
The report highlighted South African environment minister Barbara Creecy’s efforts to make Eskom and Sasol, two of the country’s major polluters, keep to carbon emission limits.
Environmental organisations have in recent years criticised South Africa’s reliance on burning fossil fuels such as coal to generate energy. But there are also concerns that jobs may be lost if the country moves away from coal.
More than 190 countries – including South Africa – have signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C – ideally at 1.5°C – by reducing carbon emissions.
But is the country the world’s 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases? We checked.
Greenhouse gas emissions changing the earth’s climate
Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. They trap the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere, similar to the way the glass of a greenhouse keeps the building warm.
The atmosphere helps control the planet’s temperature, preventing it from becoming too cold or too hot and so allowing life to survive. But as human activity pumps more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, more heat is trapped. This is causing the current crisis of global warming.
Global warming is changing the Earth’s climate. The changes include extreme weather conditions such as floods, heatwaves and droughts, as well as more acidic oceans, rising sea levels and the extinction of species.
Nasa, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, says burning fossil fuels for energy has increased the amount of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere.
According to the US Congress-backed Global Change Research Program, human activities have caused “well over 50% of the total increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide” since the start of the industrial revolution, in 1750.
Different rankings based on different criteria
Dr Andrew Marquard, a senior researcher at the University of Cape Town’s Energy Research Center, told Africa Check it was difficult to get accurate figures for different countries’ greenhouse house gas emissions.
“It’s a complex question because there are several things this depends on,” he said. The first is what timeframe is being considered, as it can be difficult to get recent data for all countries.
The presence – and potential to trap heat – of different greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is measured by the amount of heat trapped by carbon dioxide. This is known as the carbon dioxide equivalent, or CO2-eq.
The European Union’s Eurostat website says CO2-eq is the “metric measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases on the basis of their global warming potential (GWP), by converting amounts of other gases to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide with the same global warming potential”.
The volume of heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere is then measured according to “metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent”, or MtCO2e.
Different agencies calculate countries’ greenhouse gas emissions in different ways.
The Global Carbon Atlas, using 2019 data, ranks South Africa as the 12th highest emitter in the world and the highest emitter in Africa, with an estimated 470-million MtCO2e. The countries at the top of its list are China (10,175-million MtCO2e in 2019), the United States (5,285-million MtCO2e) and India (2,616-million MtCO2e).
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based nonprofit, estimates that in 2018 South Africa was the world’s 13th biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, and the largest in Africa, with 0.46 gigatonnes of CO2e, or 460-million MtCO2e. (Note: A gigatonne is about 1-billion metric tonnes.)
The World Bank also looks specifically at CO2 emissions. Its latest data, for 2016, lists South Africa as the 13th highest emitter, with 477-million metric tonnes.
South Africa’s per person emissions higher than global average
But Marquard argued that South Africa's exact ranking – whether 12th or 13th – was not particularly significant.
“The biggest emitter is China, at about 36% of global emissions. South Africa is 1%,” he said. “So by the time that you’re looking at the 15th biggest emitter you’re looking at a really small percentage of global emissions.”
Marquard said a better measure was per capita – per person – emissions, the average emissions for each person in a country. It’s calculated by dividing the country’s total emissions by its population.
The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that South Africa emitted 8.1 metric tonnes of CO2 per person in 2020. Saudi Arabia is ranked first on this list, with 18.5 metric tonnes per person, Kazakhstan second (17.6 tonnes) and Australia third (16.9 tonnes). China is in 13th place, with 7.05 tonnes, and India is 21st (1.96 tonnes).
The Global Carbon Atlas estimates that, in 2019, South Africa’s per capita emissions were 8.2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e), putting it at 38th place. China’s per-person emissions were lower, at an estimated 7.1 tCO2e, as were India’s, with 1.9 tCO2e per person. Other countries – Qatar (39 tCO2e), Kuwait (26 tCO2e) and Saudi Arabia (17 tCO2e) – had far higher average emissions.
But South Africa’s per person emissions were still well above the global average, which the atlas calculated at 4.7 tCO2e per person in 2019.
“South Africa’s emissions are quite a lot higher than the world average per capita and higher than most other developing countries per capita. And that is significant,” Marquard said.
Scientists have previously told Africa Check that the per capita measure of greenhouse gas emissions has its problems. For one, it doesn’t account for inequality between countries.
Climate change driven by centuries of emissions
Dr Rachel Cleetus is the policy director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. She said that while total and per capita emissions were important, cumulative emissions should also be considered.
“From a climate change perspective, what’s really important is cumulative emissions, not just the annual emissions,” she said. “A country like the United States is by far the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases, if you look from the industrial revolution onwards.”
Cleetus said South Africa would rank low for cumulative emissions, even though it ranked at 12th in the world in a single year.
Current data indicates that the US is responsible for 25% of historical emissions, more than any other country. In comparison, the entire African continent has been responsible for 3% of emissions so far.
“When we think about responsibility for these impacts it is predominantly on richer nations like the United States and the European Union,” Cleetus said.
Eskom biggest greenhouse gas emitter in South Africa
The Bloomberg article also claimed that public power utility Eskom and oil and gas company Sasol were “South Africa’s two biggest polluters”.
A 2020 report by South Africa’s environment department estimates that the country emitted 556-million metric tonnes of CO2-eq in 2017. Of the figure, 84.75% was from carbon dioxide, 9.28% from methane, 4.81% from nitrous oxide and 1.16% from fluorinated gasses.
Africa Check previously found that Eskom was the country’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, because most of its power plants burn coal. Energy and heat production accounted for 38.1% of South Africa’s total emissions .
Dr Andrew Marquad, senior researcher at the University of Cape Town’s African Climate Development Initiative, told Africa Check that the report did not provide figures for specific companies. But he said most emissions attributed to electricity and heat production would, by far, be from Eskom.
Conclusion: South Africa has been ranked as the 12th – and 13th – largest emitter of greenhouse gases, in single years
With the impact of climate change and pollution on human health, more attention has been given to the greenhouse gas emissions of individual countries.
A report by Bloomberg Green claims that South Africa is the world’s 12th biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The most recent data indicates that South Africa ranks 12th globally for total greenhouse gas emissions. We therefore rate the claim correct.
The country’s total emissions are much smaller than those of the top emitters. Because of this, experts advise also considering per person emissions and cumulative emissions over centuries.
South Africa’s per person emissions are higher than the global average and higher than those of countries such as China and India. But when measured historically, South Africa ranks low for cumulative emissions.
Researched by Naledi Mashishi, Researcher, Africa Check