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A just transition to a renewable energy future in SA

SA is experiencing an energy transition and the big challenge is to ensure that this transition will be fair and just, writes Tasneem Essop.

There are three key drivers for a global energy transition away from fossil fuels. The first is the imperative for all governments and non-state actors to take urgent action to address climate change. The second is the need for energy security. The third, and most exciting development, is that the renewable energy sector has made massive advances in the past few years in terms of technology innovation and affordability.

These drivers have also had an impact on South Africa, a coal-dependent economy, and all key players in the country acknowledge the need for an energy transition in the country. The renewable energy (RE) sector is best placed to fulfil the objectives for a just transition. There is much more flexibility in renewable energy systems, not only in the technologies available but also in potential models of delivery. Moreover, it has none of the harmful externalities of fossil-fuel generated electricity.

However, the key challenge for such a transition in South Africa is that we ensure that as we move away from our dependence on coal, it is done in a manner that addresses our most pressing socio-economic challenges, namely poverty and inequality. There is no doubt that an energy transition will result in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the economy, which means that a rational, robust and inclusive planning system is required. Workers and communities, especially those in sectors and areas that will be most affected, such as coal plants, coal mines and coal transportation, will need alternatives to secure their well-being. Options such as re-skilling for new jobs, a social protection floor and community-based livelihood programmes are critical to ensure that those most vulnerable to these changes are protected. This is the rationale behind the concept of a ‘just transition’.

South Africa is already experiencing an energy transition and the big challenge is to ensure that this transition will indeed be fair and just. This will require a paradigm shift among all critical players to ensure that a transition does indeed address many of the socio-economic challenges in the country. In this regards, there are a number of challenges that need addressing to ensure that the energy transition is fair and just:
  1. Governance and decision making: Much work needs to be done to ensure that the governance structures and approach are truly inclusive and transparent. Participatory democratic decision making should be a fundamental factor underpinning any transition. All social partners, and especially affected communities, should be at the table when plans and decisions are made.
  2. Policy and regulatory environment: A massive review of existing policies and regulations governing the energy system in the country is required to ensure that the benefits of renewable energy are maximised in a transition. In addition, social policies would also need to be reviewed, especially to ensure the social protection of the most vulnerable.
  3. Capacity building, training and skills development: A scaled-up and targeted programme for building the knowledge and skills in the country and within communities is needed to unlock all the potential benefits in a transition.
  4. Financing and investment: Both public and private investment in renewable energy and its value chains should be scaled up. In addition, new financing models should be explored to ensure the funding and revenue-generation opportunities for decentralised socially owned energy systems.
To date, there has been no nationally driven process for planning a just transition. There are many initiatives and discussions on the issue, especially among non-state actors. However, what we need is an inclusive process that includes all social partners in developing an overarching socio-economic transition plan for the country which can help to inform and guide any sector or localised transition planning for South Africa’s future. A better world is possible.

Tasneem Essop is the founding director of the Energy Democracy Initiative.
© Chris Marais / WWF
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