Published on February 19, 2018

Opportunities for Just Transition in South Africa

, Richard Halsey (Project 90 by 2030)

There has been talk about a just transition, particularly regarding climate change, clean energy production and environmental protection for years.

The discourse has, however, mainly been confined to trade unions, nonprofit organisations and academic institutions.

While a just transition can be applied to a number of sectors, the two basic components remain the same. The underlying “transition” component revolves around change: a movement from the status quo to something better. There are several settings for this transformation, but most are along the broad lines of shifting from environmentally and socially damaging practices to those of a cleaner, restorative economy.

Many activities contribute to climate change.

Moving towards a future of more sustainable, low-carbon actions fits within the definition of this transition.

An example is the movement away from coal as a means of electricity production to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

The use of coal has many negative effects on human and environmental health such as water and air pollution, with carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change.

As renewable energy sources have far fewer of these negative effects, a large-scale transition to wind and solar to replace coal for electricity needs is a progressive step because the end result is better for people and ecosystems. It is actually happening around the world and is no longer just a dream of environmentalists.

Despite the obvious benefits to the planet and society, a key driver has become basic economics. Renewables are in many cases cheaper than fossil fuels for energy production. In SA, the latest costs for electricity from independent power producers (IPPs) using wind and solar are 40% cheaper than from coal. India recently cancelled plans for 13.7 gigawatts of new coal-fired power station capacity (about 37% of SA’s total current capacity) because solar is now cheaper.

Due to the health, environmental and economic benefits, many of these changes are already under way or will happen soon.

The unions are correct in standing up for workers’ rights, but in this case, an action against the IPPs would only be of short-term benefit

The “just” component of the term speaks to justice and fairness and is mainly centred on workers in the industries that are to be downscaled or replaced. Many of the areas of transition are within the domains of basic services and human rights.

These include energy access, water sources, air quality, agriculture, resource extraction and biodiversity preservation. All have a direct effect on all of society and what future generations will inherit. There is, therefore, an obligation to make this transition process as fair as possible. There must be strategies to minimise the effect on those who will initially be unsettled, as the final outcome improves society.

For example, if the government establishes policies to upscale renewable energy and phase out coal, there must be a “just” way of doing it so that workers in these coal sectors are employed elsewhere, or given training to allow them opportunities for jobs or livelihoods in other sectors.

The first step is to acknowledge that in the broader process of creating better overall circumstances, those who are initially disrupted should be cared for. While the interests of specific groups, such as owners of the fossil fuel industries and their employees, in maintaining the status quo cannot be allowed to trump the interests of society as a whole, provisions must be made. A just transition must have a plan to proactively map out how to compensate workers who are initially affected by these necessary changes, which will ultimately yield a net overall benefit for all.

The next consideration is timing and the political moment. Using the coal example again, Eskom recently announced the planned closure of five coal-fired power stations. While these facilities are old and scheduled for decommissioning anyway, the Eskom message was that it was due to the renewable energy IPPs.

Due to the Eskom move, some trade unions started planning a campaign against the IPPs to protect workers’ jobs in the affected coal industries.

Conveniently, this suits Eskom, which has been refusing to sign 37 contracts with IPPs since July 2016.

The unions are correct in standing up for workers’ rights, but in this case, an action against the IPPs would only be of short-term benefit. Worldwide, the writing is on the wall, with renewables going from strength to strength, and providing many jobs in the process.

Conversely, coal for energy generation is an industry in decline and power utilities around the globe recognise this. For example, in the US the wind turbine technician profession is the fastest-growing occupation, while the coal-mining industry shed 10,900 job the year ending May 2016. It would be advantageous for the relevant unions in SA to campaign for the development of a proper plan for a just transition in this sector, as it will provide better long-term opportunities for their members.

A just transition across various sectors is clearly important, but it requires proper planning and government intervention. It will not just happen by itself. Market forces may drive many changes, but they will not necessarily be “just”.

The key issue in this topic in SA is that there is no official planning around a just transition, although the National Planning Commission is looking into it.

Several civil society organisations, industry players and trade unions are working on this issue, but the government needs to step up to the plate.

There is a great opportunity to create many decent jobs and livelihoods within a system that prioritises environmental sustainability, ecosystem restoration and climate-change mitigation. However, the concept of a just transition must be recognised and high-level national planning must be done.

Many of these changes are coming regardless and they must be managed in the most just and equitable way possible. It is the right thing to do.

Richard Halsey is a member of the policy and research team at the environmental organisation Project 90 by 2030.

Project 90 by 2030 is premised on George Monbiot’s book “Heat”, which calls for a 90 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030, if we are to avoid “catastrophic effects on both humans and ecosystems”. The name reflects the organisation’s ambition of bringing about significant (90%) change by South Africans in how they engage with earth systems. Specifically, it is looking at fundamentally changing how South Africans access and use resources (such as energy), and contribute to a low-carbon society.

This article was first published on Business Day.