05 January 2010

Magical Solutions in South Africa

Greenwire reports today that South Africa's ambitious emissions reductions goals are going to be difficult to achieve:
Slashing emissions in coal-dominated South Africa will require an overhaul of national policies as well as significant funding, a new study finds.

South Africa surprised nations in the run-up to climate talks in Copenhagen last month when it offered to curb the growth of carbon dioxide emissions 34 percent by 2020 and 42 percent by 2025 with financial support. The goal, leaders said, would be to have the country's emissions peak between those years and start to decline in absolute terms by 2035. . .

According to South African press reports, country officials plan to submit a mitigation plan for achieving the 34 percent by 2020 reductions to the U.N. climate regime by Jan. 31.

That path, according to a report released this month from the German Development Institute, is achievable but is likely to be rocky. The study (pdf) of private-sector investment in South Africa's electricity sector finds that early efforts to enhance and promote both energy efficiency and renewable energy "have failed to have any large-scale effects."

Capacity in renewable energy, the study found, "is lacking at every stage of the technology cycle, from research and development to installation and maintenance."

The figure above shows (a) carbon dioxide intensity of GDP for South Africa for 1980 to 2020 (back line, data from EIA and Maddison), (b) BAU carbon dioxide intensity of GDP (red line, assuming growth occurs at historical average rates), and (c) carbon dioxide intensity of GDP implied by the emissions reduction target of 34% below BAU emissions. The implied annual average rate of decarbonization of the South African economy is about 3.4%.

I estimate that South Africa could achieve this target by replacing about 65% of its 2006 coal consumption with nuclear power, necessitating the equivalent level of effort of about 35 new nuclear plants by 2020. That is why I call it a magical solution.