Earlier this month, political instigation allowed the powder keg of inequality in our country to explode on to our streets and shopping malls. The extreme pressure of poverty, unemployment, hunger, and violence — all exacerbated by the unending Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures — was on stark display. The centre barely held.
Imagine adding the ravages of the climate crisis to this crisis of extreme inequality.
Right now, at an average global temperature increase of 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, South Africa is already reeling from a prolonged drought and other disruptions to ecosystems and food crops. In the northern hemisphere, deadly heatwaves, fires, and extreme flooding this summer have found many governments unprepared.
At an average global temperature increase of 1.5°C, already “baked into” our immediate future, South Africa is looking at severe climate impacts that include increased intensity and frequency of droughts, flash flooding, heatwaves, old and new diseases, limited food supplies, an increased influx of migrants and climate refugees, and failure of infrastructure.
But bear in mind that the UN’s 2020 Emissions Gap Report warned that, based on current global greenhouse gas emissions, the world is on track for a catastrophic 3°C increase in average global temperatures by the end of the century. Given that southern Africa is observing warming at twice the global rate, the impacts of a 3°C global trajectory will be nothing short of catastrophic. Unless we can rely on adequate and timely international climate action, we have to prepare for impacts from temperature increases of way beyond 1.5°C.
Both the adaptation to a changing climate and the energy transition away from fossil fuels that we need to undertake in the next 10-15 years require a radical and large-scale restructuring of public and private capital flows, infrastructure, governance and employment. Undergoing this transition is not voluntary. The transition is already happening, driven by global shifts in capital and the global response to contain the worst impacts of climate change. Locally, renewable energy costs have plummeted, making any new investments in fossil fuels indefensible in a constrained fiscal environment.
While most stakeholders now accept the inevitability of having to transition from coal, many interpret this transition as an energy transition only. Moreover, whereas the concept of a “just” transition is traditionally defined to mean securing the future and livelihoods of workers and their communities in the transition to a low-carbon economy, many interpret the “just” descriptor as an excuse to slow down the pace of the transition.
This position is no longer tenable. It ignores the accelerating pace of the global transition already under way; the fact that the coal sector has been losing jobs for years; and the growing transition risk that puts other jobs in jeopardy. It also ignores the widening and unsustainable inequality gap, and the pressing need to start rolling out adaptation measures to protect our infrastructure, our natural resources and our people — particularly vulnerable communities — from the impacts of climate change. It also disregards the shameful human rights violation of ongoing toxic air pollution on the Mpumalanga Highveld and other coal-affected areas.
The just transition provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change more than just energy sources: it has the potential to be transformational and to progress the participatory, distributive and restorative justice required for a more stable and resilient society.
Over the past few years, civil society organisations and communities affected by coal, proposals for gas extraction and climate change have been developing principles and a vision for such a different future. One example is the Climate Justice Charter, led by the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Cooperative and Policy Alternative Centre and handed to Parliament in 2020, which is a manifesto for “deep just transition” to a re-imagined state and a society that is people-driven, but deeply connected to nature.
This week, the Life After Coal campaign — a partnership between the Centre for Environmental Rights, groundWork and Earthlife Africa — releases its Open Agenda for a Just Transition. This Open Agenda — a living document, developed in collaboration with community partners — calls for systemic change: a just transition from coal and other fossil fuels to a society based on clean, just and renewable energy, and social justice. It demands:
- A new, sustainable energy system to replace the current system based on dirty fossil fuels that serves only the elite;
- The end of financing for coal and other fossil fuel investments, including gas, and a focus on financing the transition;
- The rehabilitation of land and water ruined by coal mining and burning;
- Concerted efforts to prepare for and deal with the impacts of climate change;
- A new health system that works for the health of all;
- Transport and communication systems that are inclusive, and enable all to take part in public debates and decision making;
- Food sovereignty and food security for all;
- Local service delivery, and an undertaking to use open democracy and self-provision to achieve it;
- A new economic system based on fulfilling the needs of people, rather than an economy that serves profit only — including universal basic income support;
- A society rooted in gender justice, and an intersectional approach to the transition;
- Special attention to youth and their future; and
- Open democracy as the basis for decision making.
These are not radical ideas. All of these principles are rooted in our Constitution, which guarantees the rights to life, dignity, equality, sufficient food and water, social security, healthcare, the rights of children to basic nutrition, shelter and to be protected from neglect, access to information and just administrative action — and to an environment not harmful to health or wellbeing, and for that environment to be protected for future generations.
We find ourselves at a historic moment of compounding emergencies — and time is of the essence. The stonewalling that has been our energy policy for the past decade, aggravated by pervasive corruption, has cost us the luxury of incremental change. The question is whether we can marshal the vision and courage to use the structural shifts of the energy transition to make the bold changes we need to realise the South African society we want: a society that is just and equal, in which the basic needs of all are met and poverty is alleviated, safe for all, and prepared for a harsher climate.