Commentary | Just Transitions: Lessons Learned in South Africa and Eastern Europe - climateinvestmentfunds

CIF and CSIS recently held a second workshop to discuss just transitions—an approach that seeks to ensure workers and communities are both protected and benefit from the deep and rapid changes to come in the transition to a new climate economy. Experts discussed case studies from countries where just transitions approaches are advancing and shared ongoing research and lessons learned that can further inform the next phases of the Just Transition Initiative.

CIF and CSIS recently held a second workshop to discuss just transitions—an approach that seeks to ensure workers and communities are both protected and benefit from the deep and rapid changes to come in the transition to a new climate economy. Experts discussed case studies from countries where just transitions approaches are advancing and shared ongoing research and lessons learned that can further inform the next phases of the Just Transition Initiative.

 

There is a growing body of research on just transitions, but case studies tend to focus on developed economies. More case studies on sub-Saharan Africa, developing Asia, and Latin America would help illuminate how to achieve just transitions in countries with particularly vulnerable populations, fewer economic resources, and more limited social safety nets. Case studies can also deliver deeper insights on issues such as planning processes, financing options, and impact assessments in all regions (see the summary below).    

South Africa

The first discussion focused on South Africa, where the need for just transitions is especially urgent, driven in part by the country’s reliance on coal. Accounting for about 89 percent of South Africa’s electricity generation and 74 percent of its total primary energy supply, coal has been a critical part of South Africa’s economy for decades. It provides inexpensive inputs for electricity generation, an important source of export revenue, and employment for some 200,000 people through mining, power stations, and transport. But the environmental impact has been significant. The country’s carbon dioxide emissions per capita in 2017 were the tenth-highest in the world.

 

Market and policy signals indicate an inevitable decline of the coal sector, but a transition from coal presents numerous economic, social, and political challenges. Coal mining and coal power generation are heavily concentrated in four municipalities of a single province, Mpumalanga, where the industry is critical to workers and the broader community. Unemployment in South Africa reached 30 percent in the first quarter of this year, so any program that has the potential to lead to job losses is likely to trigger concern and a strong response from influential coal-linked unions. Meanwhile, the state-owned power company Eskom continues to struggle with financial and management issues that have contributed to increased costs, high emissions, and frequent load shedding, all while 2.2 million households still lack access to power. Yet many trade unions including the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) criticize efforts to increase the role of privately owned independent power producers.

 

The threats to coal in South Africa have been clear for many years, and the need for a just transition for coal workers and communities is well understood. Indeed, the just transitions discourse is long established in South Africa, with the country’s largest trade confederation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, or COSATU, calling for a just transition as early as 2011. The following year, the National Development Plan (NDP) included a chapter on just transitions.

 

One commentator in the workshop emphasized the need for just transitions efforts to address South Africa’s socioeconomic realities, especially issues of racial justice. He emphasized that black communities currently carry disproportionate negative externalities from business-as-usual policies in the energy sector, and many lack access to basic public goods such as water and electricity. But policies that elevate renewable energy—while failing to support local ownership and socioeconomic transformation—are unlikely to address these underlying issues. The high concentration of coal mines and power stations in one region of South Africa provides an opportunity to support economic diversification in ways that create environmental, social, and economic benefits and thus unlock support for a transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient, and inclusive economy.

 

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