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Who will make the energy transition just?

Who will make the energy transition just?

The power cuts South Africans endured earlier in 2019 were a vivid reminder to all of us of the defining role that a reliable, constant supply of energy plays in our daily lives. But like addicts who depend on a ready supply regardless of the crushing cost, our current systems for delivering energy are killing us.

Our reliance on expensive coal-powered electricity chokes our ecosystems and damages our economy – remember that the price of electricity has increased by over 400% over the past 10 years, in a society with dizzying levels of unemployment, and in which half of the population lives in poverty.

The catastrophic environmental and health effects of electricity powered by fossil fuels should be reason enough to shift to new ways of doing things, but they are not why human society is already deep into a transition to renewable energy all over the world. The real reason is that it’s cheaper, and as technology improves, it will continue to become more affordable and render the use of fossil fuels ever more irrational.

Of course, this shift is a good thing, but it’s not uncomplicated. Left to itself, the transition will not be “just” and will inevitably land up benefiting the empowered and disadvantaging the vulnerable. That’s something of a South African tradition. It’s what happened during our transition to democracy and it’s why we are currently the most unequal society in the world.

While the accelerating transition to renewable energy is a global phenomenon, a recent editorial in Business Day highlighted how badly South Africa is doing in preparing for it. We rank 114th in the world, behind even troubled Venezuela. The same article calls for all stakeholders to get around the table to figure out exactly what a just transition might look like and how it can be achieved. This is essential but it’s not enough. Despite sincere efforts, the social dialogue approach of the National Planning Commission has failed to engage labour or penetrate deeply into mining-affected communities.

These are the people most affected by our reliance on fossil fuel capitalism – the precarious coal workers, especially those working underground and exposed to serious lung and other diseases from inhaling coal dust, as well as the people in Mpumalanga who live near coal-fired power stations and who work in and live near the mines that feed them. Their lived experience is the direct loss of their health due to uncontained air pollution. Their quality of life is further eroded by mining-induced social dislocation and dispossession, the loss of their land-based livelihoods and other threats to their food security, limited access to clean water, increasing violence and intimidation against activists, inadequate consultation and the violation of their ancestral graves.

Their reliance on coal has created confusing and contradictory social dynamics, which include intense opposition and profound dependence, with everything in between. Coal provides at least the possibility of employment, and coal workers drive demand in informal markets, seeking products and services such as accommodation, laundry, cooked food, taverns and car repairs, among many others. In many of these mining-affected communities, the possibility of mine closure and losing these meagre economic opportunities is deeply threatening. To many of them, the notion of a “just transition” is empty of substantive content with no relation to their everyday struggle to survive.

While a transition from coal is inevitable, there is no certainty that the transition will be just, and the outcome of a planned, inclusive and democratic process. At Hendrina for example, one of Eskom’s five coal-fired power stations soon to be decommissioned, two units have already been closed and the remaining eight will be “parked” within months. Eskom is not taking responsibility for the 2,300 contract workers who will lose their jobs, here or anywhere else. No provision has been made for retraining and reskilling these workers, whether in renewable energy, mine rehabilitation, the “climate jobs” proposed by the Alternative Information Development Centre or anything else.

Given the scale of the current unemployment crisis, the labour movement is understandably defensive about protecting existing jobs. Some unions have already stated their opposition to unbundling Eskom, which they fear will be a precursor to predatory partnerships with private corporations keen to take control of national assets and utilities and to raise already unaffordable energy prices. While labour is theoretically committed to a just transition, it’s adamant that the form of ownership is important and privatised renewable energy is a threat. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the environmental movement is often insensitive to the needs of workers and doesn’t do enough to factor their interests into their demands.

A recent report by environmental NGO groundWork argues that “workers and local communities carried the cost of the creation of the coal-based economy. They should not have to carry the costs of the transition away from coal”. We are in uncharted territory and while there are no ready solutions to the challenges facing us, we do have some clues as to what works and what does not. We already know that trusting corporate South Africa to behave responsibly is a bad idea. Take, for example, Standard Bank, which in its voluminous marketing material claims to be committed to responsible investment. And yet its management has advised shareholders to vote against an innocuous shareholder resolution that would require it to disclose the climate risks arising from its investments – something it should be doing anyway. If South African corporates like Standard Bank will not even let their shareholders know what their climate-related financial risks are, how can we trust them to act with integrity in reshaping our economy so that it is sustainable and inclusive?

No, what is needed are new ways of producing and consuming linked to the mobilisation of the social power of the working class, organised and unorganised. There needs to be a popular understanding of climate change and post-carbon alternatives which are demonstrated concretely to give the notion of a just transition content and substance.

We are on the edge of ecological catastrophe. Addressing that by raising additional financing for Eskom through accelerating climate change commitments and mine closures, without providing justice for the coal workers and people in mining-affected communities, will lead us into a social catastrophe as well. Writing of a different context, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh recently termed attitudes to climate change “the great derangement”. Our grandchildren will no doubt agree. They will shake their heads in amazement at our denialism and consequent inaction. DM

Jacklyn Cock is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand where she is also Research Professor in the Sociology of Work Unit (SWOP).

Professor Dugan Fraser is Director, Centre for Learning on Evaluation and Results, Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management, at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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