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As carbon tax becomes reality in South Africa, a handy guide to emissions 

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Those who emit carbon above a certain amount will now have to pay, after the carbon tax act became South African law in June 2019.

The tax has been nine years in the making and is based on the “polluter pays” principle. Its aim is to ensure firms and households consider pollution when making production, consumption and investment decisions.

Firms will pay a small amount whenever they emit a tonne of carbon. This is initially set at R120 but could be much lower if they benefit from specified allowances. 

It remains unclear what the immediate impact of the tax on South Africans will be. For example, will the price of electricity rise? Not yet, according to the national treasury.

Tankers arrive at a Sasol plant in Sasolburg in August 2015. Energy is a major source of emissions in South Africa. Photo: MUJAHID SAFODIEN/ AFP

What about pump prices? Some consumer groups have already attributed higher prices to the tax. But others say currency strength and international geopolitics are more significant factors in the final price of fuel.

What is clearer is that the tax will be an economic balancing act for South Africa as it weighs implementation against national growth goals. (Note: For more nuance on how the revenue could be spent, read this article in The Conversation Africa. For a different point of view on the tax’s suitability, see here.)

As the debate widens, Africa Check delved into recent conversations we have had with experts while fact-checking environmental topics, to answer some questions related to carbon emissions in South Africa.

What are carbon emissions?

The new carbon law allows for the “imposition of a tax on the carbon dioxide equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions”.

Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas, and also a by-product of burning fossil (natural) fuels such as coal, oil and gas. 

Depending on which method is used, the term carbon emissions often refers to emissions from carbon dioxide alone. This Dr Lucy Baker, a senior research fellow in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, told Africa Check.

Carbon dioxide is the primary anthropogenic (as a result of human activities) greenhouse gas. Due to this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body that assesses the science related to climate change, notes that it is the reference gas against which other greenhouse gases are measured.

This leads to the much-used term “carbon-dioxide equivalent”. 

What are ‘greenhouse gases'?

The term ‘greenhouse gases’ refers to carbon dioxide, which makes up the majority, and also includes methane, water vapour, nitrous oxide and fluorinated compounds, Baker said.

Greenhouse gases are therefore both naturally existing and man-made gases in the atmosphere. Entirely human-made greenhouse gases include hydrofluorocarbons and some containing chlorine and bromine.

Why are these gases significant?

The ability of greenhouse gases to emit and absorb radiation at a specified level causes what is known as the greenhouse effect, leading to warming of the earth’s surface.

The activities of human beings are recognised as substantially raising the atmospheric concentrations of these gases, enhancing the greenhouse effect and causing additional warming. 

This is linked to adverse effects on the environment, which include climate change, extreme storms, drought, flooding, reduced crop productivity and forced migration. 

Is there reliable data on South Africa’s emissions?

For reliable emissions data, Dr Britta Rennkamp, who is a senior fellow at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town, referred us to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change

The UNFCCC is an international agreement with 197 member states including South Africa. It requires members to report their greenhouse gases and what they are doing to reduce them. 

This is done through a greenhouse gas inventory, a national account of a country’s greenhouse gas emissions, as identified by the IPCC. The gases reported on in the inventory are human-made.

Dr Luanne Stevens, an environmental consultant and one of the editors of South Africa’s last submission to the UN, agreed that the country’s inventory is the best data set to use.

How does South Africa report its emissions?

Reports to the UNFCCC are of two types, Albi Modise, who heads communications for the department of environmental affairs, told Africa Check:

National reports

These assess in detail a country’s efforts to address climate change in detail and are also useful for policy making, Modise said. They include information on greenhouse gas inventories and are meant to be submitted every four years. South Africa has so far made three, in 2003, 2011 and 2018.

Biennial reports

These are updates of national reports. To date, South Africa has submitted three biennial reports, in 2014, 2017 and most recently in June 2019.

How much carbon does South Africa emit?

The country’s most recent official greenhouse gas inventory covers 2000 to 2015. It shows a net national emission of 512.3 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

The previous inventory period spanned 2000 to 2012 and showed a gross greenhouse gas emission of 518.3 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

When given as gross emissions per person, South Africa emitted 9.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per person in 2015. This has fluctuated: in 2000 the per capita emission was 9.93 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent and 10.82 tonnes in 2010. 

Where do South Africa’s emissions come from?

South Africa’s draft 2019 biennial report noted that in South Africa, greenhouse gas emissions per capita remain “among the highest per capita emissions in the developing world”. 

This is due to the country's “strong reliance on coal-based energy”, which contributed an average of 91.8% of total carbon dioxide emissions between 2000 and 2015. Other significant emitters are transport, livestock and waste.

How is this measured?

There is no simple answer to the measurement question, Stevens said. The very basic equation is “activity data multiplied by an emission factor”. 

“So the activity data is something like the amount of fuel consumed, amount of waste produced or number of livestock,” Stevens said.

Emissions are calculated and validated with actual data. “Some calculations are quick and simple and others are much more complex,” she said.

Vehicle fuel has different emissions factors. Photo: Pixabay

IPCC guidelines are used to supply default emission factors, usually per region or continent or taking into account how developed a country is.

“However, if country-specific emission factors are available then it is preferable to use those,” Stevens said. These might include if someone measures methane emissions from landfills or emissions from specific industries. 

But Stevens said this is a simple way of putting it, as there is often more detailed data. Vehicles, for example, can be categorised by type and age, different fuels have different emissions factors, and vehicle emissions are not only carbon dioxide but also methane and nitrogen dioxide.

How complete is the data?

The IPCC reporting guidelines contain four sectors: energy, IPPU (industrial processes and product use), waste and AFOLU (agriculture, forestry and other land use).

In its 2000-2015 inventory, South Africa states that not all emissions sources are captured as per IPCC guidelines, due to lack of sufficient data. These, for example, include some emissions from waste, abandoned mines and electronics.

In the previous 2000-2012 inventory, emissions such as those from international waterborne navigation were not captured as it is difficult to partition them, the department of environmental affairs’ Modise said.

How do South Africa’s emissions compare globally?

In April 2018 weekly news magazine the Economist claimed that "coal-rich South Africa belches out more carbon dioxide than Britain".

We asked Prof Harald Winkler, who specialises in energy and development studies at the University of Cape Town, if this stacked up. 

“Yes and no. It is accurate only if one ignores history. Yes, it is true that annual emissions in South Africa are now higher than those of the UK. [But] that ignores historical emissions,” Winkler said.

As the birthplace of the industrial revolution, the UK has been “belching out” carbon dioxide since the mid-18th century, whereas South Africa started much later. 

“So historical cumulative emissions of the UK are still much higher than those of South Africa. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for about a century, so the problem we have today is due to historical emissions,” Winkler said.

Several sources show S.Africa out-emits China, above global average

Experts directed us to various sources of data if we wanted to compare emissions between countries. 

The World Bank’s latest data on carbon dioxide emissions is from 2014. This estimated that South Africa produces 8.98 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita (per person). The United States produces 16.49 metric tonnes per person and China emits 7.54 metric tonnes per person. The world average is 4.97 metric tonnes per person. 

This pattern between the three countries was also reflected in 2016 data from the International Energy Agency and 2017 data from both the Global Carbon Atlas and the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, a European Commission unit.

But Prof Hartmut Winkler from the department of physics at  the University of Johannesburg cautioned that “the accurate determination of these figures is extremely difficult and there can be a substantial degree of uncertainty.”

And direct comparison is not always easy. South Africa currently uses 2006 IPCC guidelines to prepare its inventory. For countries that are using the same guidelines, emissions are comparable, Modise previously told Africa Check. 

However, the US uses a combination of 2006 IPCC guidelines and UNFCCC reporting guidelines for developed countries, while China uses the revised 1996 IPCC guidelines. Thus, we have not compared figures from their inventory submissions here. 

Is it fair to use per capita emissions?

We asked Prof Roula Inglesi-Lotz, an associate professor of economics at the University of Pretoria if a per person approach was better.

“In general, comparisons of average emissions per capita (and for that matter any average indicator) should be made with caution due to the inequality levels among countries,” she said. 

“Comparing the US to South Africa, for example, should take into consideration the different economic structures in the countries as well as their developmental stage.” 

‘Easy to construct narratives’

The University of Cape Town’s Rennkamp agreed that dividing carbon emissions by a country’s population can be problematic.

It “makes it easy to construct narratives against China, the US, [or] India and other countries with large populations because their emissions will be divided by lots more people and end up being smaller", she said. 

But South Africa’s per capita emissions do stand out because of the “high energy intensity for [a] relatively small population”, Rennkamp said.

‘They also don’t account for who’ makes emissions

Baker from the University of Sussex said that while per capita calculations are useful when comparing large countries with smaller ones, they also “don’t account for who produces these emissions, whether industry or household”.

A deeper understanding is needed of how emissions lie within international supply chains, Baker said. She has written a paper on how the industrial, socio-economic and historical factors that explain the difference in emission amounts are not reflected.

For instance, approximately one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are from goods and services that are imported and consumed by the world’s high-income consumers.


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