The Just Transition debate in South Africa

18th May 2018 By: Saliem Fakir

South Africa is the only country that explicitly includes in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) a mention of the Just Transition – this is as far as I know.

The issue of a Just Transition raised its head recently when the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and a little-known organisation called Transform SA lodged a court interdict against the further signing up of renewables independent power producers (IPP)s.

The two organisations cited the impact renewables would have on jobs in the coal sector and the fact that the renewables programme is moving full-steam ahead without a proper debate on the future of work in the energy sector.

The Just Transition is a theme that has different meanings to different people. In the Paris Agreement, in the preamble, the importance of the relation between climate change and a Just Transition, is noted.

Countries that have submitted NDCs have committed to embarking on techno- economic changes as a result of their pledges to achieving domestic low-carbon transition targets. Technoeconomic changes are disruptive processes but can be managed pre-emptively if appropriate social dialogues take place within the national sphere between affected parties.

Technoeconomic shifts may not be just, unless explicit measures are instituted to ensure inequality is not deepened and that there are adequate response measures for protecting existing jobs and that those jobs that will be displaced have adequate social protection programmes for those most affected.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has also developed guidelines on a just transition in anticipation of energy transition effects in different countries.

Both the Paris Agreement and ILO guidelines seek to develop a state of readiness within countries so that they can rationally and pre-emptively engage with key stakeholders to ensure a managed transition that results in a soft landing, and not a hard one. The Just Transition guidelines are part of a broader programme of work within the ILO under the cover of its ‘future of work’ initiative.

In the formalised United Nations process, the Just Transition debate is a way of recognising that change is inevitable, with a wave of new technologies starting to make their presence felt, especially in industrialised and developed economies.

The debate concerns two realms: economic impacts, in that the new clean-tech sector can be the driver of new investment and jobs, and second, cushioning against the fallout where there are clear displacement effects, owing to the adoption of new technologies.

While the Just Transition debate is focused on resolving the future of work in the climate space, the future of work itself is a much wider topic, covering new, general-purpose technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

But the rise of automation and AI is an underdiscussed topic in the clean-tech or green economy sector, presumably because this sector wants to be seen to be creating new jobs, and not destroying them.

While we talk about clean-tech displacing jobs in the dirty industries, the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the green economy will throw up a new set of concerns about whether the sector’s promise for increased job intensification will hold out or not. As an example, Enel, the big energy utility in Italy, which is now a global energy player, is shutting down many of its aged coal plants. It is locked in negotiations with unions and government about how to deal with workers who will be displaced as a result of Enel pulling out of coal, given its increased investments in alternative energy sources.

While the Just Transition notion is included in South Africa’s NDC, the notion, as it stands in the NDC, has to have a wider canvass. It needs to take a fresh look at the implications of auto- mation and AI on jobs intensity in the clean-tech sector. This is a missing dimension in the Just Transition debate as it stands.

South African labour unions are not the only ones grappling with the Just Transition debate. Globally, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is championing a series of dialogues between government, business and the rest of civil society on the future of work and the Just Transition.

In fact, the ITUC has set up a special think-tank, the Just Transition Centre, to facilitate research and discussion on the issue in many parts of the world.

In the climate space, the displacement of jobs in existing high-carbon sectors is of concern to workers. Some countries are better prepared for change than others. In South Africa, the issue is contentious, as the coal industry is still a significant sector in so far as jobs and export earnings are concerned.

Unions are also competing for members within the sector; so, this may explain the seeming contradictory stand of Numsa – on the one hand, it is the champion of green jobs, on the other, it is taking the renewable IPP programme to court in the interests of coal workers.

The friction around this merits a tripartite conversation between the unions, government and the industry. Coal, as a source of energy in South Africa, will have its inevitable nadir.

It is better to have an open conversation about the future of work as a broader topic that covers the whole energy sector rather than a binary conversation. Alternative energy carriers have new economic dynamics and it is better to understand them than to bury our heads in the sand.

The Just Transition debate is here to stay, at least for a while. It will intensify in the next few years because of widening inequality and where the future of work is precarious, given how social protection measures have been eroded over the past three decades.