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Cabinet’s more ambitious climate target a step in right direction

23 September 2021 at 10:07 am

The Centre for Environmental Rights welcomes Cabinet’s decision to endorse more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets, but warns that only the lower limit of the approved range aligns with a fair share trajectory limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Cabinet’s decision last week to approve a reduced target range for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in South Africa is a marked improvement from the previous target range, and from the targets proposed earlier this year by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).[1]

These targets make up South Africa’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Climate Agreement, and as such form an integral part of South Africa’s climate change mitigation response.

An ambitious NDC is not only an essential part of South Africa’s climate change mitigation efforts, but will also play an increasingly important role in determining South Africa’s access to climate finance. It should also assist South Africa to mitigate some of the risk posed to trade exports by the implementation of the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism.

Only lower limit of NDC approaches the 1.5°C target

While the latest revised NDC target range is an important step forward for climate action in South Africa, only the lower limit of the range (of 350 Mt CO2-eq) is consistent with South Africa’s fair share of greenhouse gas emissions for a 1.5°C global pathway, as calculated by international research group the Climate Equity Reference Project (CERP). The higher limit (of 420 Mt CO2-eq) is well above a 1.5°C trajectory.[2]

“There is a material risk that our big emitters see the upper limit of the new NDC range as an opportunity to delay the reduction of GHG emissions,” says Nicole Loser, lawyer and Head of Pollution & Climate Change at CER. “Cabinet’s decision only matters for our climate response if we can keep emissions to the lower limit. This is of particular importance for South Africa, a country that is warming at twice the global average.”

At present trajectories of global climate action, including South Africa’s currently in place NDC, South Africa is on a pathway for 3 to 4°C of warming by 2100. “This is a catastrophe for the lives and Constitutional rights of the people of South Africa,” says Loser. “The NDC range proposed by the Presidential Climate Commission and approved by Cabinet takes us closer to a pathway for a safe climate, but not yet close enough.”

Meeting SA’s new NDC requires immediate action

With the new approved target range, South Africa must start taking urgent action to meet its commitments. This requires, amongst other things:

  • Revising the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) to remove new fossil fuel (coal and gas) electricity capacity and urgently implementing the renewable energy build plans in the IRP.
  • Abandoning all new coal projects, including the 1500MW of new coal in the 2019 IRP and extra-IRP projects like the proposed 3300MW coal power plant that forms part of the Musina Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ).
  • Radically stepping up the build of renewable energy. Current calculations show that South Africa needs to install 4GW of new renewable energy per year. This represents almost double the renewable energy roll-out in the 2019 IRP and ten times the pace of current build.

“A strong local NDC, accompanied by sound policy implementation, has the potential to unlock many opportunities in the green economy, with the energy, transport, agricultural and other sectors standing to become net employment creators and enhanced revenue generators – if the moment is seized,” notes Brandon Abdinor, climate advocacy lawyer at CER.

All parties to the Paris Climate Agreement must update their NDCs every five years, with many countries revising their 2015 targets this year, to align with recent scientific findings of the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and ahead of the COP26 Climate Summit.

The final NDC Update will be submitted to the United Nations ahead of the 26th UN Climate Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.



The Centre for Environmental Rights is a non-profit organisation and law clinic based in Cape Town, South Africa. As a group of activist lawyers, the CER helps communities and civil society organisations in South Africa to realise our Constitutional right to a healthy environment by advocating and litigating for environmental justice.

[1] The newly approved target range in South Africa’s NDC is 350 to 420 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2–eq). The previous target range was 398 and 614 Mt CO2–eq for 2025 to 2030. In April 2021, the DFFE had proposed a range of 398 to 440 Mt CO2-eq.

[2] CERP, and others like it, weigh each country’s required reductions according to its historical and current responsibility for contributing to global warming, as well as its socio-economic capacity to decarbonise. In South Africa’s case, CERP has calculated that the fair share range to be 274 to 352 Mt CO2-eq (including emissions from Land Use Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF)). This range represents the GHG emissions SA needs to stay within in order to be on a safe pathway for global temperature increases to not exceed 1.5°C.