South Africa’s Just Energy Transition: How far have we come?

An Eskom coal-fired power station. There are about 55 000 coal workers in South Africa. File picture: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

An Eskom coal-fired power station. There are about 55 000 coal workers in South Africa. File picture: Kim Ludbrook/EPA

Published Jan 17, 2023


The term “Just Energy Transition” has been trending in energy, environmental and climate circles over the last few years across the world and South Africa, particularly, due to our heavy reliance on coal which generates 80% of our power.

But the concept has been around for a while. Originating in the US in the 1980s, it was used by organised labour and environmental groups to advocate for public policies which protected the natural environment and workers.

The concept gained prominence in the international climate policy arena in the early 2000s when unions were increasingly concerned that international climate negotiations were not addressing the social and employment impacts of climate policy and led a co-ordinated effort to mainstream the concept of the just transition.

The concept was incorporated into the negotiating text for the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 and later the preamble to the historic Paris Agreement adopted in December 2015.

Although labour issues remain at the forefront of the just transition discourse, the movement in the context of climate change has expanded to include a variety of risks and equity issues associated with climate change impacts and mitigation and adaptation policies.

In a nutshell, just transitions should enable workers and climate-vulnerable, disadvantaged communities to access decent work and sustainable livelihoods within a new green economy.

The justice aspect focuses on looking after people in the current energy system, such as coal workers who number around 55 000 in South Africa, according to Africa Mining IQ.

As one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and the largest in Africa, what is South Africa doing to reduce its massive carbon footprint and accelerate the just transition?

The country has made some positive, albeit slow, strides in progressing toward carbon neutrality and enforcing a just transition over the last year.

At the UNFCCC COP26 in November 2021, the governments of South Africa and France, Germany, the UK, US and the EU (International Partners Group – IPG) announced a new ambitious, long-term Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP).

The JETP supports South Africa’s commitment with regard to our national climate policy with a key focus on decarbonising our dirty energy-intensive economy and transitioning to cleaner energy sources.

In line with the Political Declaration in November 2021, the IPG undertook to mobilise an initial amount of $8.5 billion (R150.28bn) over the next three to five years to advance the JETP.

The investment plan, developed over the last seven months, is built on an existing national knowledge base with contributions from the public and private sector, civil society, academia and trade unions.

The Just Energy Transition Investment Plan is focused on “justice” in South Africa and the financing needs to recognise the social costs associated with achieving the updated NDC targets, and the broader climate response.

The World Bank’s Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR), released in November 2022, said that “building a more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable economy while simultaneously responding to climate change” is possible.

By implementing a low-carbon transition, South Africa can harness investments in new technologies to help resolve the protracted energy crisis or load-shedding as we have come to know it.

A low-carbon growth trajectory will also help strengthen our competitiveness in the global market, and reduce local air, water, and soil pollution which negatively impacts people, the environment, labour productivity, and food and water security.

Marie-Francoise Marie-Nelly, the World Bank’s country director for South Africa said that “renewables are among the cheapest and quicker solutions to increase electricity supply and reduce the strain on existing generation capacity".

Achieving a climate-resilient transition will be essential to mitigating the impact of climate change on South Africa’s agriculture, cities, infrastructure, and people.

Increasing climate shocks such as droughts, floods, and heat waves are especially disruptive in coastal cities, poor agricultural provinces, and the underdeveloped peri-urban areas of the main metropolitan centres, home to the majority of the country’s people and the location of most of its economic activity.

The CCDR implores that priority should be given to “investments that will not only increase resilience but also lower greenhouse gas emissions, such as investments in irrigation, agronomic practices, sustainable land management, and ecosystem restoration.”

The report estimates suggest that South Africa’s transition to a sustainable economy could cost about R8.5 trillion (about $500 bn) between 2022 and 2050, of which R2.4 trillion would be needed before 2030.

Ashlin Naidoo, a member of RES4AFRICA (Renewable Energy Solutions for Africa) Youth Task Force said that “the JETP has a strategic focus on South Africa’s future energy mix while simultaneously ensuring the social elements of job creation and sustainable development are also implemented".

But, as has become the norm in South Africa over the years, much has been promised with little delivered. Naidoo believes that there is a lack of urgency in government action with regard to the implementation of concrete actions toward net zero objectives.

“However, a small victory has been the DMRE’s action towards expediting the REIPPP Programme allowing approximately 5.2GW of renewable energy onto the country’s grid in bid window 6. This is coupled with the programme's requirement of socio-economic development within 50km of each power plant,” he said.

“Additionally, a majority of the money awarded to SA for JETP will flow into the black hole that is Eskom. The recent axing of Eskom’s CEO leaves several questions as to what direction the parastatal will follow. The exposure of corrupt syndicates that have brought Eskom to its knees was, perhaps (André) de Ruyter’s greatest legacy,” Naidoo concluded.

Sayuri Chetty, senior professional officer for climate change, energy and resilience at ICLEI Africa agreed with Naidoo that we have come a long way but still have much to do.

Chetty said that the development of the JET-IP is a huge success on its own and that “other developing countries are looking to us to see how they can replicate something similar with the plan also being lauded by first-world countries.”

“The spirit among JT practitioners, especially from the youth, is also something very inspiring, and I don't think we will be able to achieve what we need to without this. I haven't come across anyone in the sector who wasn't passionate about change, or willing to share information and ideas on what they think it will take to make the transition work, or more importantly, was willing to let accountability and justice slide. There is space for everyone to operate, and we certainly have the skills and fortitude to make the transition a reality,” she said.

Even with all the progress we’ve made, the road ahead will not be one of comfort, “it's going to be a mammoth task, with mistakes along the way, but it is certainly achievable. However, every investment decision made today holds incredible weight, and commitment to the end goal must not waver,” said Chetty.

Considered from a climate justice perspective, it is important that we open up conversations and allow for dialogue from diverse perspectives in order to inform the process; this will allow communities to develop a sense of involvement in the process and ownership of decisions made.

“What wasn’t great about this year? It takes intentional effort to engage social actors in reforming the system. Certainly, this I think is part of the idea inherent in a just transition. To that end, the consultation process on JETP left a lot to be desired. The PCC is not without its own faults, simply on the basis that no organisation is perfect,” said Thandolwethu Lukuko, national node co-ordinator at the South African Climate Action Network.

“When we consider South Africa’s just transition and the divergent views, one unifying fact is the recognition that the transition must improve the lives of all South Africans. It should lead to new and better opportunities personally and professionally for many. Social dialogue plays a critical role in realising these opportunities,” Lukuko said.

Cabinet has approved the plan, we managed to scrounge up $8.5bn in funding from the IPG, and it is now our responsibility to implement. Actioning and implementing a plan of this magnitude will be something no developing government has done before; there is no blueprint, only the need to succeed.

For it is our very lives and the life of the planet which teeters in the balance.

* Dominic Naidoo is an environmental writer and activist.