How can we reduce the carbon footprint in Africa?

South Africa has the 14th highest carbon emissions in the world and is the worst polluter in Africa. South Africa also contributes 33% to the total air pollution of the African continent, and in 2020 the nation saw a 1,5% rise in carbon emissions. South Africa is considered the breadbasket of Africa and would thus be the ideal place to start in lowering our continent’s carbon footprint.

Causes of Africa’s high carbon footprint

Although Africa as a continent still has much lower carbon emissions than more advanced economies, the effects of climate change will be felt strongly due to the existing warm climate. Africa consists of developing countries, which means its carbon footprint can be attributed to outdated methods of generating energy or manufacturing materials such as cement. Let’s take a closer look at the biggest contributors to our carbon footprint.

Burning fossil fuels

South Africa relies on coal to generate 80% of the country’s energy, and consequently, Mpumalanga hosts one of the most air-polluted regions in the world. According to this article, Eskom uses coal to generate 90% of its energy, and most of this energy is used to power up South Africa. It is also exported to Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini. 

The coal industry employs approximately 80 000 people, mostly within regions with extremely high levels of unemployment. Thus, the move away from coal to generate energy will be slow and difficult as it needs to be done while maintaining economic stability. 


This report highlights how embezzlement, bribery, and corruption in government have an effect on the carbon footprint of countries that have an already high carbon footprint, such as South Africa. These factors negatively influence public funding for green programmes and remove the focus from lowering carbon dioxide emissions. Indirectly, government corruption causes economies to operate at an inefficient level, causing great obstacles to environmental intervention.


Inefficient transportation is a significant contributor to the continent’s carbon footprint. In South Africa, the causes of this transportation dilemma have a complicated history. Due to Apartheid, the majority of the previously disadvantaged community live close to the old allocated “homelands” and townships located far from business hubs. Intensive public transport systems are required to transport these people between their homes and workplaces.

During the Apartheid era, sanctions were imposed upon South Africa, resulting in an increase in local coal mining and boosting the local vehicle manufacturing industry. This led to an abandonment of the railroad systems available and a shift to the use of trucks. The competition in the trucking industry has resulted in poor maintenance and over-use of vehicles that directly contribute to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

The heavy strain on public transport and the lack of railroad systems have increased the demand for personal vehicles, which caused the supply to increase and, eventually, personal vehicle prices to drop.

How to reduce Africa’s carbon footprint

Fortunately, because of Africa’s developing status, there are various routes to follow to reduce the carbon footprint of our continent.

Renewable energy

The public and private sector should shift their resources and investment into the creation of a greener economy and a strong focus on the planning and creation of infrastructure to support a smooth transition to renewable energy. South Africa has great potential for solar and wind power generation. Because many sectors in Africa do not have access to electricity, the opportunity to leapfrog coal-burning generation is significant.

Green transport

The shift to energy-efficient or green transport will reduce carbon emissions and increase the efficiency of transport systems. Although this would open up significant employment opportunities within Africa, funding will be challenging to acquire. African states should thus focus on a green transport strategy to facilitate funding and mobilise resources for such projects.

Final Thoughts

As a development finance institution, DBSA aims to break down the barriers to a greener Africa. With our efforts in climate finance and renewable energy funding, we enable the implementation of sustainable and environmentally friendly infrastructure solutions. We also fast-track the investment acquirement for renewable energy projects to achieve the high levels of private funding required for green projects. With sustainable development as our priority, we hope to see infrastructure planning and development that uplifts the people of Africa while lowering our carbon footprint.