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Tanita Mehta

June 13, 2023

Building a Green Economy: The Role of Carbon Credits in South Africa's Sustainability

As the world grapples with the urgent need for sustainable solutions to combat climate change, carbon finance has emerged as a crucial tool in driving the transition to a green global economy. In South Africa, the role of carbon credits in fostering sustainability cannot be overstated. While the voluntary carbon market has faced valid criticisms, it continues to play a pivotal role in catalysing a just and equitable transition. This article explores the significance of carbon credits, with a particular focus on social enterprises and their contribution to generating high-quality, impactful carbon credits.

The Role of Social Enterprises

In the discourse surrounding carbon markets, social enterprises often receive little attention despite their essential role in addressing the needs of people living in poverty. These enterprises offer market-based solutions that not only tackle poverty-related challenges but also align with customer demands, ensuring both product success and positive social and environmental impact, including the reduction of emissions.

Transparency and Accountability

Concerns about transparency and accountability have increased scrutiny on carbon credits. Researchers argue that the market's lack of transparency has led to the demand for cheap, low-quality credits, giving rise to what is commonly referred to as corporate greenwashing. However, when used responsibly, carbon finance provides an avenue for wealthier nations, companies, and individuals, who bear a significant responsibility for climate change, to fund climate-friendly goods and services that would otherwise be inaccessible to those in poverty.

Multiplier Effect

Acumen, a social enterprise fund, recognises the importance of including people in poverty in the transition to clean energy. Their investments in off-grid and clean cooking companies aim to address the reliance of 2.4 billion impoverished individuals on wood and charcoal for cooking. This reliance leads to adverse health, economic, and environmental consequences, including over three million deaths annually and increased deforestation. Acumen's clean cookstove companies have sold a collective 3.8 million stoves, saving customers hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel and health costs, and mitigating 18 million tons of carbon dioxide by leveraging carbon credits.

Supercharging Carbon Finance

Modern energy cookstoves offer enhanced opportunities for carbon finance through metering and reliability. Electric and gas stoves enable accurate tracking of usage through metering or fuel sales. Buyers of carbon credits from companies involved in modern energy cooking can monitor the impact in near-real-time, providing greater confidence in the effectiveness of their investments in critical climate solutions.

Off-Grid Solar and Financial Sustainability

Off-grid solar companies such as d.light and Easy Solar also benefit from carbon credits as they provide clean, renewable, and affordable energy to low-income individuals, many of whom are accessing electricity for the first time. The cost of providing these services, particularly in remote areas, can exceed what low-income households can afford. Carbon finance helps ensure the financial sustainability of off-grid solar companies, allowing them to continue delivering clean energy to impoverished communities. The impact is significant, with the number of people without access to electricity nearly halving in the past decade and 190 million metric tons of carbon dioxide avoided by replacing kerosene lamps with solar lighting.

Achieving Environmental and Social Good

Carbon finance creates a virtuous cycle by reducing prices for end users, increasing financial sustainability for companies, and driving the uptake of products that reduce carbon emissions. This cycle aligns with the additionality criteria necessary for carbon offset projects to have a meaningful impact. While increased transparency and scrutiny are essential for the voluntary carbon market, the potential of carbon finance to achieve both environmental and social good is undeniable.

Directing Carbon Finance to Social Enterprises

Redirecting more carbon finance to social enterprises holds the promise of significantly amplifying environmental and social impacts. Areas such as productive energy use and climate-resilient agriculture offer opportunities for microenterprises to replace costly diesel generators with cleaner electricity and for smallholder farmers to access products and services that reduce their carbon footprint while increasing their financial returns.

In the pursuit of a cleaner and more equitable future, it is essential that the burden of creating a sustainable society is not borne solely by people in poverty who have already suffered historical injustices. Carbon markets must be sustainable and meaningful, ensuring that the communities and individuals generating the actual impact can also reap the benefits. By recognising the role of social enterprises and responsibly leveraging carbon finance, South Africa can continue its journey towards a green economy, fostering sustainability and addressing social inequality simultaneously.


  1. Acumen -
  2. Tweak Carbon -
  3. CGAP -
  4. SA National Planning Committee -
  5. Impact Alpha - 

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