While there are exceptions, such as the president of the US, that the migration from fossil fuels to greener power in order to limit climate change is inevitable and necessary is beyond debate.
The world is already making strides aided by changes in technology that may make what seemed overly ambitious and expensive just a few years ago attainable. Of course that will also depend on governments setting up appropriate policy frameworks and ensuring regulations do not stand in the way of market-based solutions.
In SA, a related concept has been getting traction though it is not clear if this is merely lip service. The concept of a “just energy transition” adds a social element, to ensure the move is linked with other goals such as reducing poverty and inequality.
While there is no clear agreed definition, the consensus view is that a move to a zero-carbon economy should not leave current levels of poverty and inequality intact. SA being unprepared to take hold of opportunities presented by the green power revolution does not stop the waves of change which are sweeping across the country and the world.
An estimated 70% of all new net energy is renewable and Bloomberg forecasts total investment in green power will reach $7.7-trillion, two thirds of the total spent on new power plants, by 2030. Renewable energy alone does not facilitate a just transition.
As measured by the World Economic Forum’s energy transition index, SA comes at 114th. Only Haiti, one of the poorest countries within developing nations, fared worse. Even Venezuela, which suffered a widespread and devastating electricity blackout in March, ranked higher.
That is in spite of SA’s green power programme, which is often lauded a success and has, at last count, introduced some 3,776MW of renewable energy to the national power grid.
There is a distinct possibility that SA’s lack of preparedness to manage the transition will see us missing out on the benefits. As it stands, foreign private sector interests stand to gain the most from SA’s transition
If SA wants to change the direction the transition is headed, alternatives to the current arrangement need to be presented.
There are several models we could look to for inspiration. Notably, in many nations municipalities are seen as well-placed to play a leading role in the renewable power revolution. This is so in SA too, but their business models must change if they are to become champions of green power rather than casualties of it.
The energy transition issue has been somewhat monopolised by labour — coal mine workers and transporters — who fear they will lose their jobs as green power continues to make inroads.
In Germany, which is often upheld as an example of a country that has made strides in integrating renewable energy, there is a plan to phase out coal by 2038. But it is treading carefully. It was on the back of coal mining and power generation in the past 200 years that the country became a heavily industrialised economy.
In the industrialised nation the potential for job losses is not as great as in SA, at 20,000 versus 90,000. But Germany has, with this in mind, moved slowly on the phasing out of coal. It sees the process as a long and difficult one, which must seek out solutions that are acceptable to everyone.
Who will take up the torch to ensure that the energy transition in SA, which does not have anything like Germany’s social net to protect the vulnerable, is a just one?
Undoubtedly, all stakeholders will have to get around the table to figure out exactly what a just energy transition for the country might look like and how it can be achieved.
The National Economic Development and Labour Council, although criticised as being ineffective of late, is likely the best platform for the transition to be discussed.
Time is rapidly running out for the country to develop the necessary road map.