Climate change

This review is aimed at examining  climate change for South Africa & Africa, coupled with  plausible risks and vulnerabilities associated with changes in rainfall and temperature, under high and low socio-economic pathway (SSP) mitigation scenarios.


Last updated: September 2022 | Authors: Caroline Mfopa & Claire Davis-Reddy

The South African climate

South Africa is located on the southern tip of Africa, between latitudes 22° and 35°S, and longitudes 16° and 33°E and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, with the Indian Ocean on the south and east.


South Africa encompasses a coastline of 2 798 km and covers a surface area of 1 219 602 km², making South Africa the 25th largest country in the world. The surface area can be divided into an interior plateau and the land between the plateau and the coast. The interior plateau is a vast, almost flat area with an altitude of between 1 000 m and 2 100 m. The plateau is surrounded by the Great Escarpment which forms the boundary between the interior and coastal areas. 


The typical climate of South Africa is heavily influenced by four major components (Nicholson, 2000). The subcontinent’s position with regard to the primary circulation patterns of the southern hemisphere (quasi stationary high-pressure systems). The movement on the inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ)  which influences the timing and the intensity of rainfall; the complex regional topography ranging from sea level to a plateau at 1 250 m, and mountains exceeding 3 000 m; the influence of the warm Indian ocean on the east coast and the cold Atlantic ocean on the west coast which results in higher and lower rainfall. South Africa has a generally temperate climate, due to its subtropical location, the moderating effect of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and the altitude of the interior plateau. Due to this varied topography and oceanic influence, a great variety of climatic zones exist, ranging from the dry north-western to the wet eastern regions of the country. The warm Agulhas current causes the eastern coastal areas to have a warm and humid climate, whilst the cold Benguela current along the west coast contributes to the arid climate of this region. 



Climate change

Climate change refers to a change in the average weather experienced in a particular region or location. The change may occur over periods ranging from decades to millennia. It may affect one or more seasons (e.g. summer, winter or the whole year) and involves changes in one or more aspects of the weather e.g. rainfall, temperature or winds. Its causes may be natural (e.g. due to periodic changes in the earth’s orbit, volcanoes and solar variability) or attributable to human (anthropogenic) activities e.g. increasing emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 and CH4, land use change and/or emissions of aerosols. However, ‘Climate change’ often refers to changes due only to anthropogenic causes. 


Global warming refers only to the overall warming of the Earth, based on average increases in temperature over the entire land and ocean surface. Climate change is more than simply an increase in global temperatures; it encompasses changes in regional climate characteristics, including temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind, and extreme weather events, which have adverse economic and social impact.


Carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions are the main contributor of global climate change. It is commonly acknowledged that, in order to avert the worst effects of climate change, the world must cut emissions as soon as possible, limiting warming to 1.5°C for manageable scenarios, at any degree higher than that, the impacts will be largely irreversible. 

Future model projections

Climate change is already affecting every inhabited area across the globe, with human influence contributing to many observed changes in weather and climate extremes. The tools below take us through  projected climate change in South Africa.

Climate change story map (Click image below to access story).

South Africa’s CMIP6 Future Model Projections from the IPCC (AR6) (Click image below to access atlas).

Overall key messages for Africa

  • Africa has contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions, yet key development sectors have  already experienced widespread loss and damage attributable to anthropogenic climate change,  including biodiversity loss, water shortages, reduced food production, loss of lives and reduced economic growth.
  • At between 1.5°C and 2°C global warming, assuming localised and incremental adaptation impacts are projected to become widespread and severe for reduced food production, reduced economic growth, increased inequality and poverty, biodiversity loss, increased human morbidity and mortality  (high confidence). Limiting global warming to 1.5°C is expected to substantially reduce damages to African economies and ecosystems (high confidence).
  • Exposure and vulnerability to climate change in Africa are multi-dimensional with socioeconomic, political and environmental factors intersecting (very high confidence). Africans are disproportionately employed in climate-exposed sectors: 55–62% of the sub-Saharan workforce employed is in agriculture and 95% of cropland rainfed. In rural Africa, poor and female-headed households face greater livelihood risks  from climate hazards. In urban areas, growing informal settlements without basic services increases the vulnerability of large populations to climate hazards, especially women, children and the elderly.
  •  Climate-related research in Africa faces severe data constraints, as well as inequities in funding and  research leadership that reduce adaptive capacity (very high confidence). Many countries lack regular reporting weather stations, and data access is often limited. 



Reports & Tools

Climate change adaptation in South Africa: a case study on the role of the health sector

In South Africa, it is increasingly apparent that delays in responding to climate change over the past decades have jeopardized human life and livelihoods. While slow progress with mitigation, especially in the energy sector, has garnered much attention, focus is now shifting to developing plans and systems to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Impacts of Climate Change on Health and Wellbeing in South Africa

Given its associated burden of disease, climate change in South Africa could be reframed as predominately a health issue, one necessitating an urgent health-sector response. The growing impact of climate change has major implications for South Africa, especially for the numerous vulnerable groups in the country.

Climate change and adolescents in South Africa: The role of youth activism and the health sector in safeguarding adolescents’ health and education

Today’s youth will inherit a world made hazardous by greenhouse gases. As a general rule, those chiefly responsible for emitting these gases will be spared the full brunt of their effects. Age has become a clear fault line of this phenomenon: while today’s adults will experience some impacts of these emissions, adolescents and future generations will face their full force in time.

Draft Climate Change Response Strategy for the Water and Sanitation Sector

The Climate Change Response Strategy for the Water and Sanitation Sector provides an integrated framework for climate change response to minimize the overall detrimental impact of climate change and to maximize beneficial impact. It sets out the key strategic actions to be undertaken to address climate change in the water and sanitation sector.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The IPCC prepares comprehensive Assessment Reports about the state of scientific, technical and socio-economic knowledge on climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for reducing the rate at which climate change is taking place.

National Disaster Management Centre

The mandate for disaster risk management in South Africa is the responsibility of the National Disaster Management Centre (NDMC), whose objective is to coordinate and promote integrated disaster 3 management at all levels of government, national, provincial and local municipalities as well as with other role players.​

South Africa Weather Service

The South Africa Weather Service (SAWS), is the legally mandated institution, as per the Weather Service Act (RSA, 2001), responsible for weather and climate forecasting and the issuing of severe weather related alerts in South Africa. SAWS also produces maintains the CAELUM weather events database – a description of extreme weather events. ​