The concept of a “just transition to a low-carbon economy” has gone mainstream in South African energy discourse this year. While the labour movement and social justice advocates have been talking about a just transition for decades, it is only very recently that Government and the private sector have adopted the term.

The first step in any major transition is to acknowledge the problem, so the mainstreaming of the language is encouraging. However, there are legitimate questions around whether it signals a genuine desire to shift the structural underpinnings of our extraordinarily unequal society, or whether it is simply a tactic designed to woo voters and placate shareholders.

The “just transition” framework originated in the 1990s in the labour movement in the US and Canada. It was framed as a mechanism which could reconcile the union movement’s mandate to provide workers with decent jobs, and the need to protect the environment. Early just transition advocates already understood the predicament which underlies the now oft-quoted maxim, “There are no jobs on a dead planet”.

The concept now predominantly refers to the need to (a) shift the global economy to more sustainable methods of production and consumption to avoid catastrophic climate change and protect biodiversity; while (b) protecting the livelihoods of those who will be most impacted by the transition, and ensuring that the impacts of climate change do not dramatically exacerbate existing levels of inequality.

The inherent tensions in this shift are playing out on a daily basis in South Africa, with its historic reliance on coal and the private and political vested interests in maintaining that reliance. The resistance of the unions to the restructuring and/or privatisation of Eskom, and their opposition to the deployment of privately owned renewable energy projects, frustrates observers.

However, it is legitimately driven by the fear that the transition to a low-carbon economy will simply replace the current form of exploitation of workers with a new version.

The transition to a low-carbon economy can happen in two ways. It can prioritise the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, in order to create a more inclusive world for all of us. Or, it can take place in a manner that entrenches existing power imbalances, and ensures that while the future might be greener, it will still be a place characterised by insurmountable barriers to economic opportunities for the majority of South Africans.

The most important thing, however, is that this is a choice we have to make, and it requires unprecedented collaboration, planning, trust and goodwill among all sectors of our society. Current circumstances do not bode well for achieving this. In my view, the following shifts will need to happen, at a minimum, just to lay the foundation for an effective collaboration strategy:

Government has to end its energy policy schizophrenia, speak honestly about the future of coal, and utilise the expertise of the multitude of highly skilled local energy transition experts who have been thinking and writing about this problem for many years. There must be an end to behind-the-scenes activities (lobbying, in other countries) of sections of our business community aimed at undermining policy shifts and regulatory developments which support the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Civil society must be better at collaboration within its own ranks, and at speaking with a unified voice.

Leaders of the labour movement must adopt a realistic approach to engagement around just transition planning. Many of the less headline-grabbing members of South African unions fully grasp the inevitability of the transition to a low-carbon economy, and are devoting considerable time and energy to developing solutions.

Regardless of the political power, vested interests, personal opinions or philosophical arguments of any South African, the transition to a low-carbon economy is going to happen. But it remains to be seen whether South Africa will embrace the cornucopia of opportunities that this transition presents to change our current doom-laden trajectory and create a healthier, more inclusive society, or whether we will choose to spend the limited time we have left to get our act together by simply rearranging the furniture inside our silos.

The time for making the choice is running out: if we do not drastically accelerate collaborative planning for a just transition, then the terms and conditions under which it happens will simply be imposed on us from outside.





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