New jobs, skills training and social security will be vital as auto and coal sector face just transition

The automotive industry has committed to accelerating the introduction of electric vehicles, but their production requires far fewer inputs and jobs will be affected. Picture: File

The automotive industry has committed to accelerating the introduction of electric vehicles, but their production requires far fewer inputs and jobs will be affected. Picture: File

Published Nov 1, 2023


By Blessing Manale

We say goodbye to Red October still in the conundrum of a climate and energy crisis as well as the advent of an unfolding transition, which has unsettled workers in numerous sectors and rattled the communities who rely on them for their livelihoods.

Our climate resilience development agenda recognises the risks facing the country’s imminent transition to a zero-carbon economy, emanating from job losses in coal, petrochemical, industrial and transport sectors, as well as climatic conditions and extreme weather events that threaten livelihoods.

The coal sector remains at risk

Since 2010, demand for coal for electricity and exports shrunk and is expected to decline further as countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. The war in Ukraine skewed the picture, but recent data by the International Energy Agency showed an increase in global coal demand through 2024, and then plateauing towards a perennial decline in 2030 and beyond.

These changes will create significant risks in South Africa, including revenue loss from reduced coal exports; job losses across the coal value chain; and loss of the economic ecosystems around coal mining communities, potentially creating ghost towns without effective economic diversification.

The challenge our country faces is to enable the coal value chain to transition their business operating models, as seamlessly as possible, and for local and regional economies in these areas to design development plans for growth, employment creation and decent new livelihoods.

To ensure the energy transition leaves no one behind, the International Energy Agency (IEA) recommends implementing policies and programmes focusing on job opportunities, worker protection, socio-economic development, social justice and engaging the community as active participants.

The South African Renewable Energy Masterplan (Sarem) has suggested targeted job creation in areas where former coal sector employees live, if well aligned with the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), any updates to the IRP that increase the renewable energy targets for 2030 or beyond would result in increases to the projected job and gross domestic product growth potential of the plan.

Great opportunities for the automotive industry

The other industry affected with climate change mitigation is the auto industry due to its dependency on the export markets currently transitioning to electric vehicles.

The industry has committed to accelerating the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs), but their production requires far fewer inputs and jobs will be affected, therefore, new training is important for those workers to help develop the infrastructure for charging stations, as well as the activities flowing from battery management eg, safe disposal, recycling, and refurbishment.

A reduction in demand for petrol and diesel will also have knock-on impacts for the liquid fuels sector. Currently, around 100 000 people work in auto manufacturing in Tshwane, eThekwini, Nelson Mandela Bay, and Buffalo City.

The Eastern Cape could face particularly harsh outcomes unless the province is able to develop alternative production clusters with the largest employment impacts in support industries rather than auto production itself. Around 250 000 people work as auto mechanics who are self-employed.

An additional 250 000 people are taxi owners and drivers, and this group will face growing pressure to procure new e-vehicles that they will not be able to afford. This may yet be another opportunity to recapitalise the taxi fleet and modernise our multimodal taxi ranks and bus stations, but it will be the single most important intervention to address public transport vehicular emissions.

We need social support shock proof vulnerable workers

While some workers and communities may be able to transition to new jobs and industries, others will require transitional or long-term support in recognition of their unique situations. Support for the chronically poor and unemployed may differ from transitional mechanisms to support those affected by longer-term sectoral changes in the economy or by immediate climate-related disasters.

Companies operating in mining communities, for example, have social labour plans which sometimes do not take into consideration the needs of communities and with the just transition, companies need to be investing in training for an adaptable future in line with their own commitments to cut out carbon emissions.

Providing comprehensive social security nets for displaced workers and communities will ensure they have adequate resources to survive while they develop a new livelihood. The social support should include mechanisms that promote entrepreneurship and self-employment, where possible, complemented by social protection funds for a specified period.

Beyond the traditional social protection and efforts to save jobs, opportunities remain to stimulate new and decent work, and improve rural livelihoods – through public programmes like the restoration of degraded lands and implementation of climate-smart agriculture – while bringing important climate and environmental benefits.

As it is in transitions, the response to mitigate the worst of climate change and save jobs means that humanity has no choice but to adapt to the new way of life.

Blessing Manale, is the head of communications and outreach at the Presidential Climate Commission.