We have all heard about the concept of a carbon footprint – but do you know what it is or why we measure it? And more importantly, why should we even worry about what South Africa’s footprint is?
A carbon footprint is essentially the amount of greenhouse gases you directly, or indirectly produce. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO₂), methane, water vapour, nitrous dioxide and fluorinated gases. Greenhouse gases impact climate change as they trap the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere, affecting the natural processes enabling the atmosphere to control the planet’s temperature i.e. preventing it from becoming too hot or too cold.
Your carbon footprint is measured by the impact your activities have on the amount of GHG produced, usually in a year, and is expressed as a weight of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e). CO₂e is a term for describing the different greenhouse gases in a common unit and signifies the amount of CO₂ which would have the equivalent global warming impact. Of course, not only people have carbon footprints, but so do businesses and countries. It is estimated that human activities have caused over 50% of the total increase in CO₂e since the start of the industrial revolution.
Various agencies calculate a country’s greenhouse gas emissions in different ways. The Global Carbon Atlas ranks South Africa as the 12th highest emitter in the world as well as the highest in Africa, with an estimated 470-million MtCO₂e (based on 2019 data). Other reports list South Africa as the world’s 13th or 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The country’s total emissions are much smaller than the top emitters but our per person emissions are higher than the global average and higher than countries such as China and India. Regardless of being ranked 12th, 13th or 14th in the world of highest emitters, the data highlights the need for SA to reduce our emissions to mitigate current and future negative impacts on our environment.
Unfortunately, our country’s high reliance on coal is one of the main reasons we rank so high on this list. While we know that Government, and industry, are examining ways to shift away from the use of fossil fuels and move towards alternative sources of energy – this shift is going to take time and will require innovation across various sectors as well as strong reliance on opening up opportunities within this space for the private sector.
South Africa was part of the Paris Climate Talks in 2015, where our country pledged a “peak, plateau and decline” approach, stating that emissions would peak between 2020 and 2025, plateau for roughly a decade, and then start to fall.
Similarly, at this year’s Summit for Climate change, President Cyril Ramaphosa reiterated that South Africa's carbon emissions will begin to decline from 2025, as well as reaffirmed commitments to building renewable energy generating capacity – all of which is good news for our country and planet and means we will rely far less of fossils fuels. Further to this, South Africa has implemented additional financial tools to aid in reducing its carbon footprint. One such example is Carbon Tax, a type of Pigouvian tax. Many economists argue that carbon taxes are the most efficient way to curb climate change. South Africa introduced the Carbon Tax Act on 1 June 2019, which, in simple terms is an environmental levy that places a price on carbon dioxide emissions by a company. So, less emissions = less tax.
And all of this is a crucial start, but is it enough to protect our planet and its resources? Well no. The reality is that this task is overwhelming, and if we want to make a difference, we all must make changes in our daily lives.
The UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2020 provides a breakdown of the largest emitters by industry sector globally. It is no surprise that Energy Production accounts for 34% of global CO₂e, followed by Industry at 20%, Transport at 14%, Agriculture at 12%, Deforestation 11%, Construction 7% and Waste at 4%. In South Africa, it is estimated that energy and heat productions accounts for over 38% of our emissions, hence the shift needed to incorporate renewable energy sources.
From a waste perspective, South Africa generates 122 million tonnes of waste per annum, 90% of which is being disposed of to over-capacitated landfills with only 10% being recycled. We have a looming waste crisis which not only has a negative impact on economic, social and environmental factors but also contributing to increasing our GHG emissions.
The good news is that there are many alternative solutions for waste re-use, recycling, recovery and treatment and many more still under development. Legislation such as the National Environment Waste Management Act and plans such as the National Waste Management Strategy or Zero Waste to Landfill Goals for Corporates, are also aligned to driving more awareness and better management of waste as well as diversion of waste from landfill.
Much work still needs to be done though, from both the public and private sectors as well as individuals to make the requisite impact on our waste crisis and GHG emissions to prevent the impacts of climate change.
Below are some tips for reducing your carbon footprint and if you are interested in calculating your own carbon footprint, visit The Nature Conservancy