Climate report highlights urgency of coal phase-out

19 October 2021 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Getty Images. Read time 7 min.
A just transition is top of the political agenda in South Africa.
A just transition is top of the political agenda in South Africa.

Although the climate crisis has become an increasingly important point on the agendas of both G20 leaders and their finance ministers, there is an overall failure to align ambitions and mitigation strategies with the target of limiting global warming to 1.5° C, as set out by the Paris Agreement in 2015. This is the message underpinning the 2021 Climate Transparency Report, released last week.

Published annually, the report is developed by 16 research organisations including the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Energy Systems Research Group (ESRG) and NGOs from 14 G20 members, and compares the adaptation, mitigation and finance-related efforts of the G20. It also analyses recent policy developments and identifies climate opportunities that G20 governments can seize.

“The review is based on 100 indicators for adaptation, mitigation and finance, and aims to make good practices and gaps transparent,” explained Caitlin Bergh, a researcher at ESRG. “There is an overall highlights report, coupled with 20 country-specific reports, which make it a clear and concise reference tool for decision-makers.”

This is the seventh edition of the annual review of G20 climate action and comes at a critical juncture, just two weeks before the G20 Summit in Rome, Italy, and the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) taking place in Glasgow, Scotland.

Among other things, this year’s report highlights a disappointing rebound in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), following a short period of decline in 2020; the ongoing dependency on coal in many G20 energy sectors; and the growing gap in successful climate action between developed and developing nations.

In terms of the South African profile report, despite ramping up renewable energy solutions over the last five years, 87% of electricity generation is still dependent on coal.

“Our energy sector is the most carbon-intensive, and we’ve got the highest share of coal in power generation among all the G20 partners,” said Bergh.

We unpack some of the key findings from the highlights report and the South African country profile.

Impact of COVID-19

Although 2020 will long be remembered as that year in which the world ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it also brought with it a promising decline in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Across the G20, energy-related CO₂ emissions plunged by 6% in 2020, only to rebound by a projected 4% this year.

“Rebounding emissions across the G20, the group responsible for 75% of global GHG emissions, shows that deep and fast cuts in emissions are now urgently needed to achieve net-zero announcements,” said Gahee Han (of the South Korean organisation Solutions For Our Climate), one of the lead authors of the report.

In the G20, nearly half of this rebound is being driven by the power sector, and a quarter by the transport sector.

The report identifies reducing the emissions intensity of electricity generation as a key mitigation strategy, especially as global power demand is expected to at least double by 2050 compared with 2018.

While G20 emissions intensity decreased between 2015 and 2020, a number of countries registered above-average emissions-intensity levels for G20 countries in 2020.

Spotlight on coal

Unfortunately, due to a high level of coal dependency in our energy sector, South Africa is among these.

During the online launch of the Climate Transparency Report on Thursday, 14 October, ESRG researcher Jesse Burton explained that South Africa depends on coal for 74% of its total primary energy supply, which includes liquid fuels used in industry and households. In the power sector this dependency is even higher, with 87% of electricity being generated from coal.

“Coal phase-out is a very big challenge in South Africa,” said Burton. “In fact, it’s our first and foremost climate mitigation action and challenge, and of course it’s key for keeping 1.5° alive.”


“Coal phase-out is a very big challenge in South Africa,” said Burton. “In fact, it’s our first and foremost climate mitigation action and challenge, and of course it’s key for keeping 1.5° alive.”

Currently, renewable energy – mostly in the form of wind and solar - contributes around 6% towards electricity generation.

“As [with] elsewhere in the world, South Africa will need to double the roll-out of renewable energy this decade to meet its NDC targets by 2030,” said Burton.

South Africa recently submitted a new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) – a climate plan that lays out targets, policies and measures that each government aims to implement – which aims for an absolute decline in emissions by 2030.

The just transition challenge

One of the main challenges with phasing out coal in South Africa is doing this in a way that will be socially and environmentally just.

The coal-mining sector employs over 90 000 workers, concentrated in regions with high unemployment levels, making the transition more challenging.

“Most of our power plants and coal mines are located in Mpumalanga,” said Bergh. “Communities will be heavily affected as the sector is phased down, if we do not invest in new economic activity and social protection for workers and communities through the transition.”

This challenge is being taken on by the newly launched Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), which has been tasked to oversee and coordinate socially inclusive pathways to net-zero.

In Mpumalanga, the provincial government has been undertaking social-partner dialogues and exploring green economic diversification.

“With the new NDC and high levels of coal dependency, just transition is really top of the political agenda in South Africa right now,” said Burton.

International financial support

Along with most other developing nations in the G20, the other big challenge South Africa faces in the phasing out of coal and ramping up of renewable energy is a lack of finance.

“A very tiny percentage of the financial flows to South Africa thus far have been in the form of grants and concessional loans,” said Burton. “We really need international support, even as a middle-income country – especially in the form of grants and concessional loans to ensure that our transition away from coal is socially and environmentally just.”

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