»It’s going to be bad. Because I think 80 per cent of the people around this area work in mining, so if they take it away…ja, eish. My family will suffer. It’s not only my family, other people depend on me because I’m now providing for maybe two or three families.« This is how a coal miner in the small town of Ogies in Mpumalanga, South Africa described the situation. He asked that his name not be mentioned for fear of retribution for speaking to the media.
His story, however, resembles that of the other 200,000 people who are employed along the coal value chain in Mpumalanga—the province at the heart of South Africa’s coal belt—where a »just transition« will be no more than an empty phrase if it means their livelihoods are threatened because their jobs are linked to the wrong commodity at the wrong time. Mpumalanga is also emblematic of broader socio-economic malaise in South Africa, which suffers from the worst inequality as well as one of the highest unemployment rates in the world.
It is with this in mind that South Africa has embarked on its »just transition«, cognisant of both the environmental imperative to move away from its near total dependence on coal for electricity generation (inherited from apartheid) and its socio-economic context. South Africa’s Presidential Climate Commission Technical Report on the Just Transition explains that a »just transition« refers to »the management of a transition to a low-carbon society in a balanced and just manner, housed within a given socio-economic context«.
At COP27, South Africa signed a 600-million-euro loan agreement with French and German development banks as part of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP)—a partnership between the European Union (EU), Germany, France, the United Kingdom and the United States.This grouping—known as the International Partners Group (IPG)—initially teamed up at COP26 to support South Africa’s climate action goals by helping finance the move from its heavy reliance on coal to cleaner and renewable energy sources. The collaboration was later formalised as the JETP. Since then, South Africa has developed a Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET-IP), which will underpin and inform South Africa’s nascent energy transition. With the signing of the highly concessional loan agreement, South Africa is seeing the first green shoots of what has in various fora been called a »model« for climate finance and international collaboration between developed and developing countries.
But what of justice? What is needed to ensure that true justice is facilitated by similar partnerships and transitions in countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Nigeria and others who have and may seek out similar deals? What lessons can be learned from South Africa so as best to consider and account for the needs of those who are most at risk, on the ground?
Vic Van Vuuren, who helped establish Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) and is the current Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for Southern Africa shared some of his thoughts with this reporter at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. »It starts with proper planning because when we talk about just transition—and we work with countries throughout the world—they think they can just make a decision on day one to close a coal mine and that’s it, they've complied with the requirements for the climate change needs. It's not so.«
One of the lessons countries such as Indonesia can learn from South Africa’s experience is in line with Van Vuuren’s recommendation. During COP27, the country secured a similar deal, worth 20 billion US dollars, to move away from coal for electricity generation in a way that »addresses the social and economic impacts of Indonesia’s just energy transition«. Sandeep Pai, senior research lead with the Global Just Transition Network at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told this reporter that »Indonesia needs to come up with investment plans (do their homework), identify projects they want to execute…and develop a pipeline of projects grounded in local realities.« »Indonesia has a lot to learn from SA. From how to run projects and engage a variety of stakeholders, including unions, regions and municipalities…to very concrete technical issues, such as how to repurpose coal plants,” said Pai.
Representatives of civil society and environmental activists have their thoughts on the issue, too. Ananda Lee Tan is with the Just Transition Alliance—a coalition of frontline communities and workers who focus on solutions rooted in local place-based ecological knowledge, democratic self-determination, and the rights of frontline communities and workers. He shared his insight into the prerequisites for a just transition. »Just transition partnerships are very well-intentioned, but unless they are centred on the democratic self-governance and self-determination of local unions and communities…on the frontlines of change, then it cannot be a just transition. There cannot be a policy table where democratic union representation and community representation is absent.«
»Local ecological knowledge is critical, as are local place-based solutions. Ultimately, it has to be ensured that those who have caused the harm are going to bear the cost of the transition. That transition shouldn’t be borne on the backs of frontline workers and communities but responsibility should be taken by those who have benefited from the harm and this is where we believe that the transition is aligned with climate reparations—where we repair the damage not only done to the earth but all the communities who, historically, were the first to be impacted and suffered most.«
»Those communities and workers [have to be] the first to benefit from any funding to tackle climate change and they have to benefit most. Financial tools cannot be extractive and involve a quid pro quo where the climate bankers and those who cause the harm actually seek to benefit further from those solutions and investments,« said Tan.
»The debt is the responsibility of those empires and corporations that have accrued their stolen wealth, you know, from the lands, lives and labours of others around the world…and really, at the end of the day, climate solutions have to be determined by those workers and communities most impacted.«
Ethan van Diemen is a South African data and investigative journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Formerly based in Johannesburg as an Open Society Foundation Investigative Journalism Fellow, his reporting is at the intersection of the science of climate change, energy, and sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa.