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A transformational just transition cannot be imposed

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Picture: Reuters – Given the significant reliance on coal in the mining, industrial, and power sectors, coal makes it hard for SA to embark on a meaningful transition say the writers.

By Kershni Ramreddi and David Hallowes

Developing economic and political power to transition from an extractive to a regenerative economy requires the implementation of a vision-led, integrated, and place-based set of principles, methods, and practices known as “just transition”.

This entails tackling the production and consumption cycles comprehensively, without creating waste. In order to establish new power structures for the future through reparations and the correction of past wrongs, the transition itself must be fair and just. Given its significant reliance on coal in the mining, industrial, and power sectors, coal provides about 70% of South Africa’s energy, making the country’s meaningful transition the most difficult and most needed.

A number of labour unions and environmental justice organisations have demanded a just transition and a move toward socially owned renewable energy. However, achieving a just transition has proven difficult due to a number of problems, including the government’s lack of resolute action to implement effective just transition policies. The pace of climate change is hotting up. Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere passed 420 parts per million (ppm) this year so far. The maximum safe limit of 350ppm.

Not only are we way past safe, but the concentration is rising faster each year. And the floods, droughts, heatwaves and wildfires are growing in intensity. The only exceptions to rising emissions of greenhouse gases have been from 2008-2009 when the gamblers on Wall Street crashed the global economy and from 2020-2021 when Covid-19 reminded us of the increased vulnerability of all species as habitats are eroded and plastic and other toxins penetrate ever deeper into our bodies. As Covid-19 froze the global economy, many people in the world’s most polluted cities saw the bright blue sky for the first time. That brought light to another facet of the damage. Air pollution from burning fossil fuels that drive climate change causes the early death of more than 8 million people each year. That compares with more than six million Covid deaths since 2020.

Covid reminded us that we have been made to depend on a cruelly unequal economy where a few get extravagantly rich, some get by and many are poor. Can there be a path to a different way of living, a different relationship between people and between people and the Earth? This is what we look for in a just transition from this pollution and carbon-intensive economy.

The Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) was established in late 2020 to advise on South Africa’s climate response and support a just transition towards a low-emissions and climate-resilient economy and society. The commissioners are drawn from the “social partners” – business, labour and environmental organisations as well as a raft of government ministers – and are supposed to create a common understanding of the just transition across interests which are as divergent within government as between stakeholders. The PCC has a five-year time frame. In its first year, it set a fast pace with a series of dialogues and research briefs on critical issues, including climate policy and governance, and with a focus on the economic sectors at risk where workers fear losing their jobs: the coal sector on the Highveld; the auto value chain including petrol stations, mechanics and taxi drivers; agriculture where thousands of jobs have been lost to drought; and in the tourism sector.

This year, the PCC embarked on community consultations on a Just Transition Framework (JTF), starting on the coal fields and including south Durban on the petrochemical front line. They were given a stormy reception everywhere as people laid out the failures of the government: the priority for business and profit over people, the corruption, the abandonment of responsibility, the pollution, the neglect of health care in response to the effects of pollution and the failure of municipal services. Communities noted the absence of government and business commissioners at these meetings and took it as a sign of elite disdain for the people. In Xolobeni on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast, people summed it up: “The government gives us nothing that we want and need and promotes everything that we don’t want.”

The PCC also consulted other stakeholder groups – big and small business, labour and civil society – and the process was rounded off with a national stakeholder dialogue in May. It published the final version of the JTF last month. The commissioners promised that they would return to the communities with another round of consultations in the coming months. The commission is making a real effort for procedural justice in its own process. What it cannot do within the frame of “social partners” is confront those powers within the state and capital that drive the destruction. That is for the people to do.

A transformational just transition cannot be imposed from above; rather, it must be carried out with the active participation, coalition, and consultation of the country’s citizens.

Ramreddi is from the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance and Hallowes is from GroundWork.