Our Burning Planet


A just transition must transform our relationship to each other and to the Earth

A just transition must transform our relationship to each other and to the Earth
Illustrative image | Sources: A South African woman carries a child in the rain during a storm in Masiphumelele, Cape Town, South Africa, on 16 September 2016. (Photo: EPA / NIC BOTHMA) | Eskom Holdings SOC's Matla coal-fired power station in Mpumalanga, South Africa, on 21 March 2022. (Photo: Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

This essay addresses three related imperatives: that a just transition must be for all, that mitigation and adaptation must be thought of together, and that the neoliberal regime of austerity, secrecy and corruption must be transformed into an open democracy founded on deep participation and accountability.

The Minerals-Energy Complex

Over the past century, South Africa’s economy was dominated and shaped by the minerals-energy complex (MEC). This has made for a highly concentrated economy, in which wealth and the power to direct development are held by a few large corporations. It also rendered SA one of the most energy- and carbon-intensive economies in the world. Its carbon intensity and heavy pollution result from two fundamental and related factors: SA’s reliance on coal as its primary energy source and its long-term policy of supplying cheap and abundant electricity to industry a policy that is still in place, although heavily eroded in practice.

Development directed by the MEC also produced one of the most unequal countries in the world. Income inequality has intensified since the first democratic elections in 1994. Levels of poverty are extreme and still defined by race, class, gender and geographic location. SA’s poorest people are rural women living in the former Bantustans. Unemployment is structural. Under the expanded definition, which includes those who have given up looking for jobs, it stands at 46%.

The MEC is now fragmenting. It may yet reinvent itself around platinum and renewables, but, in its traditional form, it is already exhausted, regardless of climate change. It nevertheless threatens to leave a legacy of a dead-end path dependency, with people immiserated in a toxic and rapidly heating land. The contours are already visible and highlighted by Covid-19:

  • Shrinking enclaves of wealth linked to a global order which retains at least for now the power to command the flow of resources from polluted and conflicted sites of extraction such as in South Africa, through unregulated exploitative and dirty manufacturing largely monopolised in China and East Asia, before arriving in the sparkling halls of elite consumption.
  • An ever-growing sea of poverty, including sections of the middle class as they fall from the zones of relative privilege.

A just transition must transform people’s relationship to each other and to the Earth. To be just, it must lead to an egalitarian society and to ecological regeneration. An old slogan has it that there will be no peace without justice. This remains true. We should add that there will be no sustainability without environmental justice. The elite’s ongoing degradation of the basis of life will lead to the uneven collapse of the present world order, first in the impoverished zones of extraction but finally in the metropolitan core. The poor in all countries will bear the brunt, but the rich will follow them on the sorrowing road to death sooner than they think.

The people and businesses the State Capture commission recommends for prosecution

Unrealistic Elite Solutions

Solutions advocated by governments and corporations remain stubbornly unrealistic and grossly inadequate. In the past year, big oil and power utilities including some that funded mendacious climate denial over the past four decades have lined up to pledge “net zero” targets. Most rely on “natural climate solutions” (NCS), a perverse version of the restoration of ecological systems that absorb carbon. 

This strategy is not viable. It relies on trading or offsetting carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels extracted from below ground with above-ground carbon that is exchanged between land, sea and atmosphere in the natural carbon cycle. The fossil fuel emissions are certain; the long-term absorption of carbon on land is highly uncertain. Besides, nature’s “net” is not big enough to absorb all the carbon that these promises imply. Shell alone would need to forest an area the size of Spain by 2050. 

Done properly, restoring the Earth is vital to adaptation, but, as a carbon sink, it compensates only for past “land use change” that is the destruction of forests, wetlands, grasslands and all. Beyond that is the question of whose land will be taken to offset corporate emissions. Carbon markets have been stuttering since the mid-2000s, with zero impact on emissions. But they added impetus to the land grabs in southern countries, where the rights of peasants, pastoralists and forest dwellers are expropriated in the name of “sustainable development”.

Adaptation cannot be divorced from mitigation for several reasons. First, without serious mitigation, adaptation will be overwhelmed. This implies not that the one can be traded against the other but that there must be a holistic embrace of both. Second, climate change is but one dimension of global environmental change threatening economies and people’s livelihoods. Heavy pollution, chemical intensification, the accelerating loss of biodiversity and the ruin of land, fresh water, the oceans and the cryosphere make people and their environments more vulnerable to climate change.

 A People’s Agenda

The Life after Coal campaign has put forward an open agenda for a just transition, based on discussions with and within communities affected by fossil fuels. In it, the “co-benefits” of mitigation and adaptation are strikingly evident.

Taking the economic foot off the fossil fuel pedal would start a process of detoxing the world. The health impacts are felt most intensely by workers and communities bordering polluting mines, power plants, refineries and industries, and extend downwind and downstream to the major centres of population. 

Between 2,200 and 2,700 premature deaths, including 200 children, are attributable to Eskom’s coal-burning power stations every year in SA. Tens of thousands more people are afflicted with asthma and bronchitis. Thousands are, or should be, admitted to hospital. Many more suffer “restricted activity days” days when they cannot function normally and every year about a million working days are lost. The toll from Sasol’s egregious pollution, from the oil refineries and from dozens of metal smelters, adds more death and disease.

In South Africa’s dual and unequal health system, who gets care and who does not mostly comes down to who has medical aid and access to privatised health care. The burden of care is then typically left to women, who may themselves be battling for breath. And they must balance money for asthma pumps against food and other household needs.

People whose health is compromised by pollution and poor nutrition have diminished capacity to adapt to climate change, itself the greatest public health threat of this century. Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and floods have an immediate impact on people causing death, injury and disability as well as longer-term impacts on nutrition, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, mental health and people’s ability to work. Climate change will also bring heightened threats of infectious and vector-borne disease such as malaria. That includes pandemics such as Covid-19 because climate change and biodiversity and habitat loss have common drivers and are mutually reinforcing. 

The public health system should take a central role in supporting people’s capacity to adapt. However, it currently has no real response to the well-known health impacts of bad air: even in declared air quality priority areas, there are no dedicated resources to addressing these impacts, nor statistics. It is similarly without direction in addressing climate change.

The health of natural ecosystems is similarly impacted by burning fossil fuels. The acidification of soils, evident in the fertile grasslands of the Highveld and in the diverse Limpopo bushveld, is not reversible on a human time-scale. The plume of pollution from the inland plants sweeps out across KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique to the sea, where it adds to acidification driven by the absorption of carbon dioxide. It also carries mercury. Globally, coal burning is a prime source for this most toxic of metals that bioaccumulates up the marine food chain until it lands on our plates.

Spontaneous combustion at coal mines releases unmitigated pollution including an exotic range of sulphur compounds laced with heavy metals and an extraordinary cocktail of toxic hydrocarbons and far more greenhouse gases than previously thought. Similarly, coal mine methane emissions have been overlooked and add to the carbon count for mining, particularly over the critical short term in which the survival of peoples will be decided.

The ruin of the land itself is immense in scale. Underground mines tend to collapse in time and result in subsidence at the surface and the fracturing of geological strata in between. Open-cast miners simply blast and dig out the earth, 30- or 50m deep, to get to the coal seam, piling it into heaps of what they call “spoil”. The ruin of water follows from the disruption of groundwater flows, from direct pollution and from acid mine drainage. Four major rivers rise on the Highveld. Starting with the upper Olifants River, these catchments are at risk of turning into a wasteland.

The first imperative for adaptation is to stop digging coal. Rehabilitation is mostly poorly done, if not entirely neglected. Even when well done, it does not return the land to anything close to its original state. Nevertheless, it remains essential both to eliminate emissions and to remediate or contain acid mine drainage. And rehabilitation needs to go beyond individual mines to restore wetlands and whole catchments. Hence, the rehabilitation of each mine must be understood in the wider ecological context and contribute to the restoration of the whole. Fibrous plants, such as hemp, may be used to detox mine-contaminated lands and thereafter to produce alternative construction materials to substitute for carbon-intensive cement, to produce insulation for buildings and to substitute for plastics.

The townships and shack settlements that are mostly home to black people are designed for neither adaptation nor energy conservation. Most are in a bad way. On the coalfields, people’s houses are cracked from mine blasting and often badly made and insulated, leaving them hot in summer and cold in winter. Roads are potholed, drains are blocked, rubbish overflows from skips or collects on corners, sewage runs down the road, electricity outages are common and water pipes are empty or leaking. Minimal provision is made for walking or cycling, and amenities and employment are often remote.

People’s settlements need reconstructing, in anticipation of the intensified storms and droughts that climate change will bring, and with full participation of those in the conception, design, landscaping and construction work. Municipalities must restore services and work with people to create livelihoods concerned with the recreation and maintenance of social well-being. New housing must be energy-efficient; existing housing must be repaired and retrofitted, and shack settlements upgraded. Housing should also be supplied with solar water heaters with servicing after installation, and local, community-owned photovoltaic mini-grids should be developed.

For a holistic climate response, reconstruction must address the built infrastructure of roads, wires, pipes, drains, sewers and water storage, the soft infrastructure of terracing, storm-water soaks and street planting, and the natural infrastructure of catchments, streams and wetlands. It is urgent that the leaking sewage plants now fouling our rivers be repaired or replaced with biogas plants where replacement is necessary.

The South African Waste Pickers Association advocates for “zero waste”. Plastic is derived from fossil fuels and seen by Big Oil as a growing source of profits to compensate for any decline in revenues from fuel. But it already saturates the environment: microplastics, with accumulated toxins, are now detected in almost all living organisms. Zero waste starts with product design, eliminating the manufacture of redundancy and minimising waste. Recycling then may substitute for virgin production. At the street level, separation at source facilitates recycling and removes wet waste from dumps, where it produces landfill gas instead of usable biogas and compost.

The capital-, energy- and chemical-intensive food system has failed the majority of South Africans. Hunger stalks the land; stunting affects 25% of children, and women bear the burden of providing on less than a shoestring while eating last. For people who live near mines and industry, the experience of Covid confirmed the necessity of people’s food sovereignty and agroecology for healthy food and for restoring soil carbon. This must be accompanied by the redistribution of land and water rights.

Just Transition Centres

To support a people’s agenda, we propose the establishment of a network of just transition centres, beholden to local communities. They would have three primary aims:

  • To support communities and workers taking the central role in the transition through democratic participation, including open access to information and decision-making and enhanced capacity to hold the government to account.
  • To connect community and expert knowledge across relevant fields such as urban design, environmental health, agroecology, wetland and mine rehabilitation and enable community action to take control of living and working environments.
  • To engage with community groups and workers to monitor and document the impact on people of climate change and of the transition.

These aims would be supported by three programmes: open democracy, remaking people’s lived environments and monitoring the transition. For all programmes, the centres would: 

  • Compile a database of experts;
  • Build a resource library for community use;
  • Organise community exchanges and community-expert exchanges and roundtables;
  • Assist communities in organising their strategies, responses and actions;
  • Provide workspace for expert field visits and for community research; and
  • Identify resources and agencies to carry out the various elements of the open agenda for a just transition.

A just transition is about people as a community and as workers. It is twinned with the idea of open democracy, of people participating in the decisions that shape their lives, with full access to information and decision-making at all levels, and holding the government to account for its deployment of the people’s resources. At present, people are alienated from decision-making and have very little trust in government or in many other institutions supposed to represent their interests. They see the government as beholden to, or the vehicle of, private interests. 

A truly democratic transformation does not end with accountability. “The economy” a set of institutional relationships has subordinated both society and nature to its narrow and elitist needs. A just transition that puts people before profits must ultimately be driven by the people. DM/OBP

David Hallowes is a researcher for groundWork. Victor Munnik is a researcher for groundwork and adviser for the Life After Coal Campaign.

This essay is part of a series that explores challenges and opportunities relating to a just transition in South Africa, with a specific focus on enhancing resilience in ways that improve lives and livelihoods. The series is being published in the lead-up to the Presidential Climate Commission’s multistakeholder just transition conference on 5 and 6 May. This essay series has been produced by the Presidential Climate Commission Secretariat and New Climate Economy, with support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The interpretations and findings set forth in the essays are the authors’ alone.


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Absa OBP

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