• Amy Musgrave, 4irsa.org

Coal is dying – what now for SA?

A look across the globe shows that the last embers of the coal industry are about to burn out. There will be the odd hold-out (President Donald Trump rode to power promising to ‘revive’ the dying American coal-mining industry), but in the main, coal is dead. While many believe it’s due to a greater global push against climate change, in a number of countries it’s simple economics – renewable energy has become cheaper than coal.

An in-depth report says a just energy transition that will have a positive impact on South Africa’s structural unemployment and entrenched inequality is doable. We need to look at various financial options

Politicians and business will argue that no matter the reason, the end result is the same – the greening of the economy. However, Project 90 by 2030, which is a social and environmental justice organisation, believes that the way South Africa moves from coal to renewable energy cannot only be determined by the bottom line. The country needs a just energy transition that does not perpetuate its current inequality and poverty levels. The non-profit organisation has released a study titled: Remaking Our Energy Future: Towards a Just Energy Transition (JET) in South Africa. It makes suggestions on financing, the protection of workers, community -upliftment, sustainability, modes of production and policy.

“South Africa’s triple challenges of entrenched poverty, very high structural unemployment and growing inequality show that something is deeply wrong with the way that society is organised. The need to transition from fossil fuels to RE (renewable energy) could provide South Africa with an ideal opportunity to think creatively and compassionately about new ways of ordering society,” the report reads.


The researchers say that early informed planning results in energy transitions with more equitable outcomes.

South Africa was the first country in the world to commit itself to a just transition in its Nationally Determined Contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But according to the World Economic Forum, the country ranks 114th out of 115 in terms of its readiness for what the WEF describes as “an effective energy transition”.

“This perilous position is largely the result of the government’s failure, through its ownership and management of Eskom, to prepare for the transition away from coal,” the document reads. This includes job losses that will result from the decommissioning of power stations.

It says that given that the transition is already under way in South Africa, it’s urgent that the government draws up a comprehensive national plan for managing a JET. But this can only be achieved through inclusive and meaningful dialogue with all concerned parties via a purpose-built institution. While the National Economic, Development and Labour Council should in theory be the body for meaningful dialogue, there have concerns for years, especially from its labour and community constituency, that they’re often ignored, and policy is railroaded.

Therefore, the researchers call for a national Just Transition Task Team to be set up as a progression from the work already done by the government’s National Planning Commission. It should be housed in a relevant lead ministry like the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. Its key functions should be to provide oversight and a consultation platform. The planning role of the team must acknowledge the links of energy to other sectors during the transition. And from the outset, the government should accept responsibility for acting on recommendations to indicate that political will is in place.

All interested and affected parties must be represented and have a voice, including the state, unions, communities, Eskom, industry, civil society and academia. These representatives should regularly report on their mandates and be held accountable for delivering on these mandates. Sessions should be properly facilitated and democratic to ensure that collective decision-making takes place.

It also advises that a regional assessment is done in areas negatively affected by the transition away from coal before specific regional support is considered. Local task teams should also be established, with at least one local branch in Mpumalanga, to work at a grassroot level in affected communities.

South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) is still being reviewed. Researchers say this presents an opportunity to reimagine how energy planning takes place. It could be redrafted to focus not only on economic and technology choices, but also consider issues of energy justice which prioritise genuine and realisable equality of access and the inter-generational sustainability of energy choices. Often energy documents are penned by economists and engineers who focus on technology choices and costs.


One of the main oppositions to a speedier transition to renewable energy is costs. But the study warns of dire socioeconomic consequences if