South Africa has the highest reliance on coal of any country in the world, with coal being its main source of energy consumption. According to data from the Statistical Review of World Energy, coal accounts for 69% of South Africa’s energy use.

This is followed by oil, which makes up 22%. Gas accounts for 3% of the country’s energy consumption, with ‘other’ accounting for 6%.

In a list of the top 20 most coal-reliant nations, no other African countries were present.

The second most coal-dependent country on Earth is China, with 55% of the energy it consumes coming from coal. However, China uses more coal in terms of volume, using more than any other country in the world. Last year, the Asian nation used 4 billion tonnes of coal – more than every other country combined.

India follows China as the world’s second-biggest consumer of coal overall. In 2022, it used twice the amount of coal it did in 2007.

Fossil fuels still dominate

Although there is a global focus on decarbonisation and adopting renewable energy sources to help achieve this, fossil fuels still continue to be the primary source of power and account for 82% of the world’s energy consumption.

In 2022 alone, the world consumed over 8 billion tonnes of coal, the highest amount ever used in a single year. Of all fossil fuels, coal is responsible for the highest energy-related carbon emissions due to being the cheapest energy fuel.

However, the Statistical Review of World Energy did find that developed countries are less reliant on coal than previously, while emerging economies remain just as, if not more, dependent on it.

Why is South Africa the most coal-dependent country?

There are several reasons to explain South Africa’s high reliance on coal. One is its enormous coal reserves. It has the biggest coal reserves in Africa (followed by Mozambique) and is also the 8th-biggest global coal reserve. What’s more, coal is the most abundant fossil fuel in South Africa.

High production, high power generation

This makes it a widely available fuel source that is easier to mine and produce than other energy sources and is therefore the most affordable to use.

The ease of coal production enables the country to generate high yields of it – more than 250 million tonnes per annum – and as such, coal is one of the primary drivers of South Africa’s economy. This is another incentive to continue mining it.

South Africa only exports approximately 25% of its coal each year and uses the other 75% domestically.

Despite keeping most of its coal, South Africa is also the producer of 90% of the coal used in the whole of Africa.

Along with abundance and availability, coal is a reliable source for meeting the country’s growing power demand – more reliable, currently, than renewable energy sources.

This is due to the fact renewable energy depends on the right weather conditions, but as well as this, there are currently not enough clean power plants in South Africa. What’s more, renewable power plants are more expensive to install than coal-fired power stations.

Ironically, at the same time, due to corruption and poor upkeep, South Africa’s coal plants have been unable to properly operate and produce energy to meet the demand, resulting in the infamous loadshedding that has plagued the country for years.

Bad news for ESG goals, but good for employment opportunities

Unfortunately, all of this means it will be challenging for the country to shift away from coal and decarbonise, even as independent power producers in South Africa develop an increasing number of renewable power projects to provide greener energy sources.

Another difficulty of moving away from coal is that, while a high carbon emitter, due to being so large the coal industry is also a huge provider of jobs, with many employment opportunities for South Africans. And in a country with the world’s highest rate of unemployment, residents need all the job opportunities they can get.

Will South Africa ever shift away from fossil fuels?

Will it ever be possible for South Africa to transition away from coal to renewable energy sources? The answer is yes, if the country can receive the funding needed to install sufficient clean energy power plants and generate power from them.

However, it will be a long while before South Africa can switch fully to renewables and leave fossil fuels fully behind.

At the same time, urgency is needed, as coal-fuelled power plants look to be closing in the years to come. Although South Africa has enough coal supply to keep producing energy for another 200 years, Eskom, the country’s primary power producer, plans to decommission half of its installed capacity by the year 2035.

But, renewables are not a silver bullet for the country’s energy woes, especially because installing enough clean energy plants to meet the country’s enormous power demands will take years and cost billions of USD.

At the moment, gas, although a fossil fuel, is expected to be a stand-in for coal in the near future for the time being, and can easily be added to the energy mix.

Nuclear is also a possible option, but South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission states it is too expensive.

There is no easy answer when it comes to how South Africa will transition fully to clean energy sources, or how the country will solve its current challenge of meeting the high power demand and reducing planned blackouts. With time and enough funding, however, South Africa may be able to resolve these issues and move towards decarbonisation.

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