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South Africa’s road to COP26: We must stick to our guns on a just energy transition

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Stanley Semelane is Senior Researcher, Climate Services with the CSIR’s Holistic Climate Change Impact Area, where he is responsible for supporting climate change finance as well as the mitigation and adaptation measures for a just transition in South Africa. He has an MSc in Engineering from Wits University and is completing his PhD in Energy Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

What is concerning as we prepare for COP26 is that the energy transition seems to be more important than the just energy transition. The road to COP26 should ensure that the just energy transition is supreme. Failure to achieve this would be a recipe for an unjust transition where inequality, poverty and unemployment will continue to worsen, the worst possible deal that South Africa could achieve at Glasgow.

As the world would reflect on the Paris Agreement progress and the new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that aim to lessen the impact of climate change, it is important to reflect on the possible deals that could accelerate the implementation of the South African decarbonisation agenda in a just manner (ie, a just transition).

South Africa has the highest unemployment in the world (34.4%), and it runs the world’s worst-polluting power company. As a result, from the environmental sustainability standpoint, a clean-up act is urgently needed.

The South African updated draft NDC mitigation targets are set at 398-510 Mt CO2-eq and 398-440 Mt CO2-eq for the period 2021-2025 and 2026-2030 respectively. South Africa’s emissions target range is 398-510 million metric tons (mt) of CO2 equivalent in 2025 and 350-420 million mt of CO2-equivalent in 2030 under the plans approved by the Cabinet. These ambitious targets are set to respond to the need to accelerate the country’s decarbonisation agenda.

First, it is important to acknowledge that these ambitious targets would unquestionably enable the South African low and NetZero carbon pathway by 2050. However, this also means that the carbon-intensive economy would decline. Several organisations in the carbon-intensive industries have come out with low-carbon strategies that aim to reinvent their business operating models in the direction of environmental sustainability. This paradigm shift would have severe socioeconomic implications that cannot be ignored. What we see from the climate science models is that the need to reduce carbon emissions is more urgent as the global air temperatures may rise by more than 1.5°C in 20 years.

From the Global South perspective, the just energy transition cannot be compromised – if the COP26 conference is to achieve anything for South Africa, it is ensuring that the energy transition is just. The just energy transition should be about the people, making sure that those who are likely to be negatively affected by the energy transition are protected from any potential financial losses.

What is concerning as we prepare for the road to COP26 is that the energy transition seems to be more important than the just energy transition. In this regard, the energy transition refers to the transformation of the global energy sector from fossil fuels dependence to a low to a net-zero carbon future. Whereas the just energy transition aims to ensure that the process of shifting to a low to net-zero energy system is just and fair – this is one area that cannot be compromised. The road to COP26 should ensure that the just energy transition is supreme.

Failure to achieve this would be a recipe for an unjust transition where inequality, poverty and unemployment will continue to worsen. This means that the adoption of renewable energy technologies and the pathway toward net-zero carbon should not be a driver for unemployment, unfairness, and impoverishment. This is the worst possible deal that South Africa could achieve at Glasgow.

The major reforms vital for a just energy transition should focus on the following areas:

  • Technology transfer – this will enable the local manufacturing of low-carbon technologies and thus contribute to economic diversification options that are needed for the post-coal phase-out in Global South countries. New patents and technology development will also start to unfold from the technology transfer implementation;
  • Green investment should adopt a shared value principle – adopting a shared value principle in green investment would create value for communities. This means that the communities located where renewable energy investment would take place would need to co-own investments in their communities. This will allow communities to raise capital and develop their low-carbon projects in the future as they gain more capacity throughout the project development value chain; and
  • A just energy transition fund needs to be established to deal with all the socioeconomic impacts that might arise from the energy transition. Moreover, potential losers in the energy transition (ie, coal sector workers) need to be protected, and this fund can contribute to social protection plans.

Finally, the road to COP26 provides an opportunity to advance the adaptation segment in the climate change negotiations. The AR6 climate change 2021 report shows that the changes in the climate system are human influenced. As such, the road to COP26 needs to reflect on the resilience of the key sector that the South African adaptation strategy prioritises.

The South African updated NDC report signals that the country is already experiencing significant impacts of climate change. These changes have major impacts on the country’s infrastructure needs as well as on maintaining the existing infrastructure. For instance, the AR6 climate change report shows that human-induced impact contributes to increases in agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions due to increases in evapotranspiration – this means that climate adaptation funding is needed to enable climate change resilience in key sectors such as agriculture, water, biodiversity, settlements, forestry, and disaster management.

South African settlements are vulnerable to the effects of climate variability – since 1980, 86 noticeable weather-related disasters have affected more than 22 million South Africans and have cost the economy more than R113-billion (around $7-billion) in economic losses. As a result, the two major achievements for South Africa and the broader global South economies in the COP26 would be: 1) just energy transition funding that is biased towards socioeconomic upliftment: and 2) climate adaptation funding that will ensure that a standardised system for adaptation reporting, money spent, and requirements are in place.

These are two major possible deals that can set South Africa on the road towards an accelerated decarbonisation pathway, and a people’s orientated climate change action deal. DM

Stanley Semelane is Senior Researcher, Climate Services with the CSIR’s Holistic Climate Change Impact Area, responsible for supporting climate change finance as well as the mitigation and adaptation measures for a just transition in South Africa. He is completing his PhD in Energy Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

 

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  • A #JustEnergyTransition must empower ALL ~60million South Africans – not just a few lucky communities.

    The transition is NOT about commerce exploiting a RSA caught between a Rock & a Hard Place
    – we can all profit from self-generation for self-consumption – we need grid-interactive efficient buildings and their attendant #MicroGrids, all at the #GridEdge

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