03/12/2013 - In the two decades since apartheid ended, South Africa has made impressive strides to catch up with - and in some cases surpass - the developed world’s environmental standards. Despite this, its economy remains highly carbon-intensive, many of its rivers and lakes are polluted and indoor coal and paraffin stoves harm air quality for millions.
In its first Environmental Performance Review of South Africa, the OECD praises the progress made with environmental reforms. It also urges Africa’s biggest economy to keep focusing on green growth to help it shift towards a low-carbon model that will improve the well-being of all South Africans and preserve its rich natural habitat.
“Progress has been remarkable, and yet much remains to be done,” said Simon Upton, Director of the OECD’s Environment Directorate. “As it works to bolster economic growth and raise income levels, one of the key challenges South Africa faces is to integrate biodiversity considerations into its mining, energy, transport and coastal management policies.”
South Africa ranks among the world’s top 17 countries for biodiversity. Yet unchecked mining, mineral processing, energy production and urban development during the years of apartheid has left a quarter of its river ecosystems critically endangered, depleted water resources and damaged the country’s natural habitat and biodiversity.
Though significant progress has been made on improving water quality and sanitation, environmental factors such as poor sanitary conditions and air pollution from poorly vented indoor stoves fuelled by coal, wood or paraffin are a key cause of disease and even death among young children, helping hold down life expectancy in the country to just 51 years.
South Africa is also one of the world’s top 20 emitters of greenhouse gases, due largely to its extensive use of coal. Its ratio of greenhouse gas emissions to economic output is one of the highest among comparable economies. South Africa has made a voluntary commitment to reduce these emissions, contingent on support from developed countries. Reducing explicit and implicit subsidies for coal used in electricity generation should be a fundamental part of the strategy for meeting this goal.
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Since apartheid ended, South Africa has developed a legal and regulatory environmental framework that in some areas is more advanced than in many OECD countries. In 2011 it launched a Green Economy Accord that aims to promote partnerships with the private sector and other stakeholders to green the economy. The power of local officials to implement green policies is often limited, however. Agriculture, manufacturing, mining and mineral processing, urban development, forestry and fisheries are all putting pressure on biodiversity.
The OECD review presents 36 recommendations that include reducing explicit and implicit subsidies for coal and electricity consumption, examining how environment-related taxes could provide an alternative, doing more to integrate biodiversity into economic development and quickly implementing a proposed carbon tax. The review also calls for substantial infrastructure investments to improve access to, and quality of, environmental services such as water, sanitation and waste management.
This is one in a series of OECD reviews of South Africa’s policies and another step in the deepening co-operation between the 34-member economic policy forum and South Africa.
For a summary, please see the review Highlights.
For more information, journalists should contact the OECD Media Divison by email or (tel: +33 1 45 24 97 00).