Maverick Citizen


Getting the Just Transition to work for everyone isn’t easy, but it can be done

Getting the Just Transition to work for everyone isn’t easy, but it can be done
The Just Transition is the issue of jobs and the reality that in a society in which unemployment is the main cause of poverty and inequality, a transition to green energy will quite simply be socially and politically unacceptable if it is seen to exacerbate any or all of these. (Photo: Supplied)

If South Africa’s energy woes can be attributed, at least in part, to resistance to the transition from coal to renewable energy, then it is all the more important that the Just Transition delivers on the ‘just’ part of the equation.

This means a focus not only on replacing the direct jobs lost, but also on the wider social context of poverty, inequality and deprivation within which such transitions will happen.

Certainly, the baseline for this needs to be holistic social protection. But employment is at the heart of the concept of the Just Transition and, where market-based solutions are unable to deliver employment at the scale required – or in the places most affected – there is a vital role for special employment programmes to fill the gap.

The challenge is to optimise the social, economic and environmental value they can add.

Legitimacy jeopardised

If the energy transition is seen as exacerbating the crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality, then the legitimacy and policy priority given to greener forms of energy will be placed in serious jeopardy. This political risk is already evident and may be escalating.

Yet most stakeholders agree that no matter how effectively the Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET-IP) is implemented, market-based investment in renewable alternatives – or any forms of investment in the affected areas – are unlikely to enable seamless transitions to new jobs, even only for current employees

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Such jobs are unlikely to be created at the scale required, or in the same places as the jobs being lost. Nor will they be able to reproduce current employment and other multipliers in the local economies that stand to lose jobs in the transition process. All of this is well-recognised in South Africa’s JET-IP. 

So how is that recognition translating into a plan of action? 

At present, much of the discussion on the social equity dimensions of the Just Transition focuses on the role of social protection. This is often understood narrowly in relation to social grants. Certainly, such grants matter. For many, they are a lifeline keeping hunger and the most damaging impacts of poverty at bay. They are a necessary component of the strategy. 

Yet, at the core of the Just Transition is the issue of jobs and the reality that in a society in which unemployment is the main cause of poverty and inequality, a transition to green energy will quite simply be socially and politically unacceptable if it is seen to exacerbate any or all of these.

Offering hope

It is in this context that public employment programmes (also known as public works or special employment programmes) need to be an explicit and assertive part of the overall strategy, providing publicly funded support to jobs and livelihoods in the places where these are required, on terms that offer hope and opportunity on a wider basis than just for those directly affected by the energy transition. 

The incomes flowing into communities as a consequence of such public investment will also act as a buffer for small enterprises and the informal sector against the impending shock of the transition. 

Such direct job creation also contributes to the enabling environment for investment in renewables and other sustainable jobs, by taking some of the pressure off these investments to provide direct like-for-like job opportunities in a context in which that is often simply not realistic. 

Of course, the medium-term goal is for new and better jobs to replace current ones. But if this is the expectation in the short term, it could even deter investment by heightening the political risk associated with being part of Just Transition “deliverables”.

So, in the same way that the JET-IP turned heads at COP27 in Egypt last year, South Africa needs to do so in relation to the scope, depth, creativity and social impact of a public employment component within our Just Transition strategy.

As it happens, we have a real track record on which to build – this is an opportunity to take lessons learnt to the next level.

Starting with green jobs

South Africa’s environmental programmes in the Expanded Public Works Programme were ahead of their time, creating social, economic and environmental value long before climate issues were as prominent on the global agenda as they are now.

The Working for Water programme – one of a suite of environmental programmes – is based on robust science that demonstrates how the removal of alien invasive species enhances availability of water in our water systems. Coupled with integrated catchment management, this enhances not only the quantity but also the quality of water, reducing siltation in our dams and mitigating flood risks.

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This matters for agriculture, industry, mining – and people. The economic case for such intervention is as strong as the social and environmental one, with a need to find new ways to also reflect and recognise the economic value created. 

And this is just one area of environmental intervention. There is also a need to support biodiversity, land restoration and community forestry.

In urban areas and informal settlements, there is scope for innovation in relation to waste and recycling, in greening urban settlements and extensive need for thermal insulation of housing.

The work across this spectrum can integrate all skills levels. In many instances, there is also scope to support participants to transition into forms of self-employment and enterprise development linked to such work, using public employment models to seed sustainable jobs.

How about a Green New Deal for South Africa? 

The case is strong. But not all the work undertaken needs to be green to contribute to a Just Transition and it matters to recognise this also. 

Our public employment portfolio includes a strong track record of work in the social sector. This includes support for Early Childhood Development, school feeding and community health initiatives.

Most recently, the Presidential Employment Stimulus has demonstrated the potential to proceed rapidly to more significant scale, with its school assistants programme currently providing work experience to over a quarter of a million young people placed in schools each year.

The Just Transition Framework also emphasises the importance of empowering communities. 

Right now, the Social Employment Fund is doing so, using public resources to build local capacities to undertake “work for the common good”, in support of community-driven initiatives. 

It currently supports over 50,000 jobs at community level, through organisations engaged in combating gender-based violence, supporting food security, informal settlement upgrading, community safety, and public art and environmental action at community level, too.

The institutional systems are in place to take this to significantly greater scale anywhere in the country. So why not ramp up our “social employment” strategy right now, signalling this as part of Just Transition interventions in those communities bracing themselves for what lies ahead – to start allaying their fears for the future before the future even gets here?

Enhancing human capital

All of the above also contributes to economic diversification in coal-dependent areas, as well as to human capital development. 

Participants get work experience, gaining the tacit skills so vital to productivity, with other opportunities for skills development too. At the same time, the work undertaken often contributes to enhancing human capital in communities, too, through education, health, food security and more, contributing to future generations in the process.

All this matters in a context in which there is a lack of the skills needed for future jobs in a low-carbon economy

Finally, the Presidential Employment Stimulus (PES) provides a current example of the institutional arrangements that could enable rapid roll-out of such a strategy.

Initiated in October 2020, the PES has delivered more than a million public employment jobs and livelihood opportunities in less than two years. More than 98,000 of these have been in Mpumalanga, as it happens.

In the context of the Just Transition, criteria could be crafted relevant to the specific needs of areas most affected. These could be spatially targeted, with the skills profiles of jobs at risk informing work choices, which can be designed to encompass all skills levels. 

As with the PES, the likelihood is that – given the opportunity – all kinds of stakeholders will rise to the occasion with proposals to deliver work that creates meaningful work experience for participants, coupled with real public value. 

Must improve lives

In sum, the central premise of the Just Transition concept is that the transition to renewable energy goes hand-in-hand with a firm commitment to the workers and communities most affected that they will not be worse off for it – and that it should instead contribute to their social and economic development.

Such a commitment cannot rely on the whiff of possibility that investments in renewables will match existing jobs and their contribution to local economies in any direct, spatially-matched or seamless manner – regardless of the best efforts of the JET-IP.

In fact, the success of those best efforts needs to be supported through complementary strategies that close the inevitable gaps. Without that backup, the investment process itself is placed at risk, because it has to carry the heavy weight of social needs and expectations. 

This can inadvertently distort decisions on when, where and how to invest for optimal results – and for optimal job creation. An own goal in the making.

Which is why public investment in jobs is a necessary and strategic part of enabling the transition – and of making good on the promise that it is indeed just. DM/MC/OBP

Kate Philip (Programme Lead: Presidential Employment Stimulus), Anda David (Senior Researcher at Agence Française de Développement, Kwena Mabye (Researcher, SALDRU, UCT).

Absa OBP

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