Sam Maphumulo

Incorporating bioethanol into the country’s fuel ethanol mix will not only help revitalise the South African sugar industry but it will also achieve the country’s goal of reducing emissions through the use of a cleaner-burning fuel.

The local sugar industry has the potential to assist South Africa in meeting its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the incorporation of fuel ethanol into the country’s national petrol pool, without affecting production for the local market. With global efforts of reducing the rate of global warming, carbon dioxide removal and low carbon technologies are gaining traction as mitigation measures to ensure global warming of 1.5°C or less is achieved by 2100.

Climate change impacts such as drought conditions and flooding have already been seen in South Africa. There is now a dire need for the sugar industry to play a role in climate change mitigation to help achieve national emission reductions and reduce the severity of potential future impacts of climate change. South Africans must have a pronounced interest in meeting the global warming limit of 1.5°C. As a developing country, South Africa is greatly affected by climate change impacts due to its effect on water and food security, health, human settlements, ecosystem services and infrastructure.

This article summarises the predicted impacts of climate change as well as the proposed mitigation and adaptation measures relevant to the South African agricultural sector indicated in the special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC published a Special Report entitled ‘The Impacts of Global Warming of 1.5°C above Pre-industrial Levels and Related Global Greenhouse Gas Emission Pathways’ in 2018’. The report stresses the importance of reducing CO2 emissions by highlighting the severity of climate change impacts if effective mitigation measures are not prioritised globally. At the Paris agreement in 2015, nations, including South Africa, had agreed to limit warming to 2°C.  A 2°C warming limit is now projected to lead to worse global and regional climate impacts hence the reduced warming limit of 1.5°C. 

Key findings presented in the report

  • Global emissions need to be halved by 2030 and to reach global net zero  CO2  emissions latest by 2050
  • With the current 1NDC we are globally on a track to double emissions by 2030
  • The following reductions in global primary energy use are needed until 2030:
    1. Oil use: -50%
    2. Coal use: -67%
    3. Gas use: -33%

1. Understanding Global Warming of 1.5°C

Global average temperatures have already increased by 1°C since the 2pre-industrial period of 1850 – 1900. The impacts of global warming on natural and human systems has already been observed and future climate-related risks will depend on the magnitude and rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability, and on the choices and implementation of adaptation and mitigation options. Future climate-related risks would be reduced by the improvement and fast tracking of existing, and the development of new, climate mitigation and adaptation measures.

Sugarcane is affected by climate change as temperature, precipitation and atmospheric carbon dioxide are key factors for sugarcane production globally. Any change in the climatic conditions in sugarcane production influences the population dynamics, life cycle duration and overall occurrence of the majority of insects, pathogen and weeds of sugarcane (Hussain, et al., 2018). 

2. Projected Climate Change, Potential Impacts and Associated Risks

Climate models project great differences in regional climate characteristics between present-day and global warming of 1.5°C and between 1.5°C and 2°C. Below are projected changes in mean temperature (top) and mean precipitation (bottom) at 1.5°C (left) and 2°C (middle) of global warming compared to the pre-industrial period (1861–1880), and the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of global warming (below).

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018, Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5oC – Summary for Policymakers.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C is projected to lower the impacts of climate change on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems and their ability to retain more of their services to humans. Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.

Illustrated below are the impacts and risks at different levels of global warming for people, economies and ecosystems across sectors and regions.

The key elements are presented here as a function of the risk level assessed between 1.5°C and 2°C

Confidence level for transition: L = Low, M = Medium, H = High and VH = Very high

Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018, Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5oC – Summary for Policymakers.

A comparison on projections for warming of 1.5°C versus 2.0°C has been identified for the following:


  • Countries in the tropics and Southern Hemisphere subtropics are projected to experience the largest impacts on economic growth due to climate change should global warming increase from 1.5°C to 2°C.
  • Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.
  • Adaptation is expected to be more challenging for ecosystems, food and health systems at 2°C of global warming than for 1.5°C. 

Biodiversity and Water Resources

  • Risks associated with biodiversity-related factors such as forest fires, extreme weather events, and the spread of invasive species, pests, and diseases, are also reduced at 1.5°C versus 2°C of warming.
  • Human exposure to increased flooding is projected to be substantially lower at 1.5°C as compared to 2°C of global warming. Risks to water scarcity are greater at 2°C than at 1.5°C of global warming in some regions.
  • Limiting global warming to 1.5°C would approximately halve the fraction of world population expected to suffer water scarcity as compared to 2°C.

Land Use, Food Security and Food Production Systems 

  • Global warming of 1.5°C (as opposed to 2ºC) is projected to reduce climate induced impacts on crop yield and nutritional content in some regions. 
  • Affected areas include Sub-Saharan Africa (West Africa, Southern Africa), South-East Asia, and Central and South America. 
  • A loss of 7-10% of rangeland livestock globally is projected for approximately 2°C of warming with considerable economic consequences for many communities and regions.
  • Risks of food shortages are lower in the Sahel, southern Africa, the Mediterranean, central Europe, and the Amazon at 1.5°C of global warming when compared to 2°C. 


  • 3In 1.5°C pathways with no or limited overshoot, renewables are projected to supply 70–85% of electricity in 2050. 
  • In modelled 1.5°C pathways with limited or no overshoot, the use of coal shows a steep reduction in all pathways and would be reduced to close to 0% of electricity.
  • All pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C with limited or no overshoot project the use of Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) on the order of 100–1000 GtCO2 over the 21st century. 
  • Existing and potential CDR measures include afforestation and reforestation, land restoration and soil carbon sequestration, Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS), enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinization. 
  • Some Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU)-related CDR measures such as restoration of natural ecosystems and soil carbon sequestration could provide co-benefits such as improved biodiversity, soil quality, and local sustainable land management to conserve and protect land carbon stocks and other ecosystem functions and services.


3 Emission pathways are classified by their temperature trajectory over the 21st century.

Pathways available to limit warming to 1.5°C were examined, to determine the pros and cons of each emission pathway. Limiting warming to 1.5°C would require systems transformation incorporated with sustainable development. It would also require rapid and extensive transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.

Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)

CDR would be used to achieve net negative emissions to return global warming to 1.5°C. “To date, only a few published pathways include CDR measures other than afforestation and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). Some pathways avoid BECCS deployment completely through demand-side measures and show greater reliance on AFOLU-related CDR measures” such as afforestation (Summary for Policy Makers - IPCC, 2018). 

System Transitions - Agriculture

With projected negative climate change impacts on agriculture, changing agricultural practices would be an effective climate adaptation strategy. A diversity of adaptation options exist including mixed crop-livestock production systems and improvement of irrigation efficiency. “Improving the efficiency of food production and closing yield gaps has the potential to reduce emissions from agriculture, reduce pressure on land and enhance food security and future mitigation potential” (Summary for Policy Makers - IPCC, 2018).

Improving productivity of existing agricultural systems generally reduces the emissions intensity of food production and offers strong synergies with rural development, poverty reduction and food security objectives. Biotechnology could contribute to resolving current feasibility limitations and expand the future mitigation potential of agriculture.


“A mix of mitigation and adaptation options implemented in a participatory and integrated manner can enable rapid, systemic transitions in urban and rural areas that are necessary elements of an accelerated transition to 1.5°C worlds” (Summary for Policy Makers - IPCC, 2018). Mitigation and adaptation measures are most effective when aligned with economic and sustainable development, and when local and regional governments are supported by national governments.

Collaborations between adaptation strategies and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are expected to be valid in a 1.5°C warmer world. These synergies are significant for agriculture and health, advancing SDGs 

1 (extreme poverty), 

2 (hunger), 

3 (healthy lives and well-being), and 

6 (clean water). 

3Pathways giving at least 50% probability based on current knowledge of limiting global warming to below 1.5°C are classified as ‘no overshoot’; those limiting warming to below 1.6°C and returning to 1.5°C by 2100 are classified as ‘1.5°C limited-overshoot’.

Way Forward

Limiting warming to 1.5°C is an important global goal for the country as a global average temperature increase of 2°C translates to up to 4°C for South Africa by the end of the century (DEA, 2015). The Department of Environmental Affairs has commented on their expectation of reduced income and labour productivity in rural communities as a result of negative climate change impacts on agricultural input (DEA, 2013). 

To meet the 1.5°C warming, reduce the severity of the predicted climate change impacts and as a form of climate change mitigation, South Africa would need to move away from fossil fuels such as coal and move towards transformation in the energy sector to renewable energy. The sugar industry has been engaging continuously with government and now needs government support to incorporate bioethanol into the country’s fuel ethanol mix which will not only help revitalise the South African sugar industry but it will also achieve the country’s goal of reducing emissions through the use of a cleaner-

burning fuel. 


  • Department of Environmental Affairs, 2013, Full technical report on the implications of climate change for the Agriculture Sector in South Africa.
  • Department of Environmental Affairs, 2015, South Africa’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution.
  • Hussain, et al., 2018, Sugarcane Production under Changing Climate: Effects of Environmental Vulnerabilities on Sugarcane Diseases, Insects and Weeds.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018, Special Report, Global Warming of 1.5°C– Summary for Policymakers.

Sam Maphumulo

Sam Maphumulo is Natural Resources Assistant at SASA