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The just transition: A once-in-a-generation chance for real transformation that will save our country and our planet

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Melissa Fourie is the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Rights and a member of the Presidential Climate Commission.

We find ourselves at a historic moment of compounding emergencies and time is of the essence. The lethargy of the past decade in implementing a sustainable energy policy, aggravated by pervasive corruption, has cost us the luxury of incremental change.

Earlier this month, political instigation allowed the powder keg of inequality in our country to explode on to our streets and shopping malls. The extreme pressure of poverty, unemployment, hunger, and violence — all exacerbated by the unending Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures — was on stark display. The centre barely held.

Imagine adding the ravages of the climate crisis to this crisis of extreme inequality.

Right now, at an average global temperature increase of 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, South Africa is already reeling from a prolonged drought and other disruptions to ecosystems and food crops. In the northern hemisphere, deadly heatwaves, fires, and extreme flooding this summer have found many governments unprepared.

At an average global temperature increase of 1.5°C, already “baked into” our immediate future, South Africa is looking at severe climate impacts that include increased intensity and frequency of droughts, flash flooding, heatwaves, old and new diseases, limited food supplies, an increased influx of migrants and climate refugees, and failure of infrastructure.

But bear in mind that the UN’s 2020 Emissions Gap Report warned that, based on current global greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on track for a catastrophic 3°C increase in average global temperatures by the end of the century. Given that southern Africa is observing warming at twice the global rate, the impacts of a 3°C global trajectory will be nothing short of catastrophic. Unless we can rely on adequate and timely international climate action, we have to prepare for impacts from temperature increases of way beyond 1.5°C.

Both the adaptation to a changing climate and the energy transition away from fossil fuels that we need to undertake in the next 10-15 years require a radical and large-scale restructuring of public and private capital flows, infrastructure, governance and employment. Undergoing this transition is not voluntary. The transition is already happening, driven by global shifts in capital and the global response to contain the worst impacts of climate change. Locally, renewable energy costs have plummeted, making any new investments in fossil fuels indefensible in a constrained fiscal environment.

While most stakeholders now accept the inevitability of having to transition from coal, many interpret this transition as an energy transition only. Moreover, whereas the concept of a “just” transition is traditionally defined to mean securing the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities in the transition to a low-carbon economy, many interpret the “just” descriptor as an excuse to slow down the pace of the transition.

This position is no longer tenable. It ignores the accelerating pace of the global transition already under way; the fact that the coal sector has been losing jobs for years; and the growing transition risk that puts other jobs in jeopardy. It also ignores the widening and unsustainable inequality gap, and the pressing need to start rolling out adaptation measures to protect our infrastructure, our natural resources and our people — particularly vulnerable communities — from the impacts of climate change. It also disregards the shameful human rights violation of ongoing toxic air pollution on the Mpumalanga Highveld and other coal-affected areas.

The just transition provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change more than just energy sources: it has the potential to be transformational and to progress the participatory, distributive and restorative justice required for a more stable and resilient society.

Over the past few years, civil society organisations and communities affected by coal, proposals for gas extraction and climate change have been developing principles and a vision for such a different future. One example is the Climate Justice Charter, led by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre and handed to Parliament in 2020, which is a manifesto for “deep just transition” to a re-imagined state and a society that is people-driven, but deeply connected to nature.

This week, the Life After Coal campaign — a partnership between the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork and Earthlife Africa — releases its Open Agenda for a Just Transition. This Open Agenda — a living document, developed in collaboration with community partners — calls for systemic change: a just transition from coal and other fossil fuels to a society based on clean, just and renewable energy, and social justice. It demands:

  • A new, sustainable energy system to replace the current system based on dirty fossil fuels that serves only the elite;
  • The end of financing for coal and other fossil fuel investments, including gas, and a focus on financing the transition;
  • The rehabilitation of land and water ruined by coal mining and burning;
  • Concerted efforts to prepare for and deal with the impacts of climate change;
  • A new health system that works for the health of all;
  • Transport and communication systems that are inclusive, and enable all to take part in public debates and decision making;
  • Food sovereignty and food security for all;
  • Local service delivery, and an undertaking to use open democracy and self-provision to achieve it;
  • A new economic system based on fulfilling the needs of people, rather than an economy that serves profit only — including universal basic income support;
  • A society rooted in gender justice, and an intersectional approach to the transition;
  • Special attention to youth and their future; and
  • Open democracy as the basis for decision making.

These are not radical ideas. All of these principles are rooted in our Constitution, which guarantees the rights to life, dignity, equality, sufficient food and water, social security, healthcare, the rights of children to basic nutrition, shelter and to be protected from neglect, access to information and just administrative action — and to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing, and for that environment to be protected for future generations.

We find ourselves at a historic moment of compounding emergencies — and time is of the essence. The stonewalling that has been our energy policy for the past decade, aggravated by pervasive corruption, has cost us the luxury of incremental change. The question is whether we can marshal the vision and courage to use the structural shifts of the energy transition to make the bold changes we need to realise the South African society we want: a society that is just and equal, in which the basic needs of all are met and poverty is alleviated, safe for all, and prepared for a harsher climate. DM/OBP

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All Comments 17

  • I totally agree that climate change is an existential threat. However, I think we’re too late and the fight is lost.

    Current Co2 levels are consistent with 3 degrees of warming in the historical record and we are much more likely to end the century at 5 degrees, or even more.

    When the permafrost melt really kicks in, and it’s underway, none of our mitigation efforts will amount to anything.

    Meantime, fossil fuels are essential to our survival and that’s why we’re so bad at getting rid of them. Yes, we can add some renewables here and there, but nothing on a scale that could ever replace fossil fuels…and definitely not in time to prevent a climate catastrophy.

    Meantime our fossil fuels probably have no more than 20 years left and they will pose another catastrophy when they deplete – or when their supply drops because prices are too high for consumers and too low for producers. Eskom is a classic here. Please use less while we hike our prices.

    We have limited time to enjoy business as usual. I recommend you to an excellent presentation on utube

    It’s pretty shattering, but the logic is crystal clear

    • I agree that we are in for more than 3 degrees of warming by 2100, but I do not agree that the fight is lost. The motor industry is transforming towards electric cars, and hydrogen is not far off; the shift towards renewables through solar and wind is now getting into full swing. The challenge is for South Africa to pioneer the Just Transition, by supporting local industries in producing solar panels (happening in Durban), batteries (happening at Specialized Solar Systems in George) and wind turbines (not yet happening in South Africa). We need to implement renewable power generation projects in a way that benefits local communities and helps them to participate in power generation – that is the challenge which can make the South African energy transition part of a just transition which must include Ecological Organic Agriculture (EOA) so that carbon is sequestered in the soil and water is used efficiently to produce nourishing food without poisons and synthetic fertilisers. The transition of the food and energy systems must go hand-in-hand if we are to adapt to and mitigate climate change effectively, The African Union is leading the way with EOA, and South Africa has the potential to become the leader in a renewable energy transition. It is time that Africa shows the way towards a sustainable future. We have the skills and the resources, above all we have the sunshine and the wind. We must use them wisely. Prof Raymond Auerbach, MD Peacevale Renewable Power (Pty) Ltd.

    • I don’t agree with the statement that, “fossil fuels are essential to our survival and that’s why we’re so bad at getting rid of them”. Short and simple: it’s greed fuelling a lack of political will.
      Eskom spent a full decade telling us we needed to measure the wind before a single step towards wind farms could be taken. They told us, oft repeated by government, “the Sun can’t shine at night”, and offered lame excuses about “base-load”, and insisting that the ONLY workable option was “an energy mix” with a grand vision of 20% renewable energies. We soon found out there was collusion with the rich and powerful for Rosatom radiation factories to be build to the extent that each time a Russian agreement was to be signed we’d be subjected to 5 days of “load-shedding” to scare us. I have no doubt that blackouts were used to bully us towards nuclear options.
      And so round and round we go, twenty years later, Mantashe still believes in “clean coal” and now “powerships” for erm… emergency power for 20 years – oxymoron much? Nuclear aspirations are still very alive; and our renewable energy capacity is vastly more than we are using due to capped agreements, which implies we have unnecessary “load-shedding”.
      We’re not hamstrung by renewable tec but by political will.

      • Imagine that we stopped burning all coal and petrol tomorrow. No electricity, no transport, no food in shops.

        Instant catastrophy.

        Saying fossil fuels are essential to our survival is like saying oxygen is essential to our survival.

  • Noble ideals but a pipe dream for those who believe that wealth is created by disincentivising those that have the ability and experience to make it happen

    • Nonsense, Miles. Disruption offers us opportunity to do it better. Should we dream of growing inequality instead? Dreams should be noble.

  • Amazing that such a long article can be written without mentioning the root cause of pollution and climate change – the present overpopulated state of the world.

      • My sentiment exactly! I cannot understand why population growth is never on the table in any of these discussions and I will be more supportive of this kind of initiative when the poor start taking some responsibility for perpetuating their own situation. People breed ad nauseam and without considering the consequences which invariably is left for others (taxpayers) to pick up. Where is my social justice?

    • Ian, while you are right I cannot imagine any logic to disagree with you, your comment is made moot by the ethics. Are you going to volunteer yourself and your family to begin the steady population decline,in whatever form it takes? Or were you thinking more of those who don’t use cars (or do share transport), those who do not support the fashion industry, those who eat local food, those who use relativley tiny bits of water and electricity..? Who is it who should change the population numbers ? To this, I am of the understanding that global groups have decided to stop wasting time debating population and try to find other practical ways of mitigating us humans on the planet. I found that quite interesting when I read it.

  • A campaign that seeks to turn society completely upside-down because reasons, and yet “these are not radical ideas”?

    And what is “gender justice”? What is “an intersectional approach”? What is “open democracy”?
    These just sound like fancy made-up terms used to legitimise an agenda that has no practical connection to reality.

  • An excellent article, thanks CER, and yet the comments so far seem to indicate that the commenters are all in various states of denial. Everything in the article has been said over and over, hence it is “radical” in the sense of being unusual – we do have to change the way we live in many ways. The article is not “religious”, that is it doesn’t talk about faith and prayer. The fact that the proposals “bear no relation to reality” is exactly our problem – we fail to see the reality of where we are headed. This “summer of extreme weather” will become the norm in future unless we radically change direction.

  • Well said, Commissioner. Just one quibble: to call this a once-in-a-generation opportunity is a severe understatement, since there will be no such opportunity for subsequent generations if we do not grasp this opportunity to change course; it is a once-in-our-species’-history opportunity to avert to dismally grim decline.

  • Excellent article of what has been unfolding before us for the past 20 years. It is surprisingly evident here that what is needed is education education education across all platforms.

    • What are the chances this “education” you speak of will include the little detail that SA produces only 1% of the world’s CO2 where China produces a whopping 26%? And yet here are these reactionary panic-mongers wanting to upend our entire socio-economic fabric (as fragile as it is) to change a mere 1% of a global phenomenon. Why are they not banging on the door of the Chinese Embassy to get the attention they crave? Oh yes, because they don’t have the stones to confront the actual perpetrators of injustice and rather go after the soft targets, i.e. the Thunberg Effect.

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