18 November 2019

Is shale gas a viable solution for South Africa’s energy challenge?

Options Winter 2019/20: IIASA researchers looked into the potential of shale gas exploitation as a solution to South Africa’s energy requirements and fast-rising greenhouse gas emissions.

© Lonny Garris | Dreamstime

© Lonny Garris | Dreamstime

South Africa is facing the challenge of fueling economic development, while meeting its growing energy demand, and defining ambitious targets for the decarbonization of the country’s energy system to meet its nationally determined contributions under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

An IIASA study evaluated shale gas exploitation as a potential solution to meet South Africa’s energy demand and mitigate its fast-rising greenhouse gas emissions. Accessing this untapped resource would however require industrial-scale shale gas “fracking” – a technique that enables natural gas production from previously uneconomic shale resources. Despite benefits like reducing local air pollution compared to coal, shale gas fracking has many negative social and environmental impacts including increased risk of earthquakes, water pollution, a reduced water table, and methane leakage that contributes directly to global warming.

The authors found that shale gas extraction costs must be below US$3 per gigajoule for this energy source to become a significant part of the fuel mix. This is well below current cost estimates. Whether low-cost shale gas replaces coal or low-carbon renewables depends on the stringency of climate change policy. Counterintuitively, the impact of an ambitious policy is weakened by cheap natural gas.

“Shale gas is ‘fool’s gold’ in the quest for sustainable development,” says study coauthor Daniel Huppmann, a researcher in the IIASA Energy Program. “Given its negative side effects, pushing strongly for zero-carbon renewable energy is a more prudent policy for developing countries like South Africa.”

By Luiza Toledo

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Last edited: 21 November 2019


Daniel Huppmann

Research Scholar

Integrated Assessment and Climate Change Research Group|Energy


and Environment Program

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Options Winter 2019/20

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International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
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