The Green Transition is a Unique Opportunity for Growth and Transformation
In a country like South Africa facing rampant poverty and unemployment, many feel that worrying about climate change and investing in mitigation strategies is a luxury we just cannot afford. I have compassion for those who hold this view. If you are living hand to mouth, it is a tall ask that you care about anything other than feeding your family and making it through the day. Even knowing that climate change will have a direct and disastrous impact on your life, thinking long-term is just not an option.
The problem with this view is firstly that it assumes we have any choice in the matter. The global economy will transition and if we do not move with it, we will be left in dust. And secondly, the idea is largely based on a false dichotomy: we don’t need to choose between caring about people and caring about the environment. By investing in the green economy, we can improve the daily lives of current South Africans while also mitigating against further climate-related suffering. But for this to succeed, the transition to a green economy must be a just transition and must be done with great care and intentionality.
Framing the issue
Moving South Africa away from its emissions-heavy economy and into a greener future is a massive opportunity to create jobs, address inequalities in the workforce, and create a more equitable society. It is, in other words, a great opportunity for transformation, and it is with this future-focused lens that governments, unions, businesses and civil society should view the green transition. The attitude we have as a country towards the transition will determine whether we come out the other end with a stronger, more equitable society, or with even more problems to add to our growing pile. If we prepare for the inevitable challenges and seize the available opportunities, the green transition could be truly transformative.
Of all the changes that the move to a green economy will bring, the biggest will be the greening of our energy sector. South Africa generates a whopping 80% of its electricity from coal. So clearly, in order for us to reduce our carbon emissions and reach our Paris Agreement goals, coal use will need to be radically scaled back and we will need to invest massively in renewable energy. The good news is that this transition to renewable energy will provide numerous opportunities for growth and jobs. Employment opportunities abound. They will come from the supply chain—in the manufacturing of solar components, wind towers, turbines, battery installation, and transmission infrastructure—as well as from the installation, upkeep and restoration of this infrastructure. Even just improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings and building new, greener buildings in urban centres has the potential to create over 900 000 jobs in South Africa. An added benefit is that transitioning to locally sourced renewable energy will make South Africa less vulnerable to the price volatility of fossil fuels and reduce the price of electricity in general. It will also finally set us free from the tyranny of Eskom. What this all amounts to is a democratisation of the energy sector.
Moving away from coal and towards clean energy will also undoubtedly present many challenges and we must put strategies in place to address them. The coal mining sector supports not only miners, but an entire economic ecosystem built around mining communities. There are around 1.1 million South Africans living in districts that are founded on coal production. It is imperative that the livelihoods of these people are the number one priority in the shift away from coal. They must be given the necessary support during the transition to renewable energy; this means help with transitioning business operating models, skills development, and targeted job creation in former coal mining areas.
The second major industry that will provide the biggest opportunities is the auto industry. As the world swaps ICE vehicles for EVs, South Africa’s auto manufacturing sector will have to adjust with it, creating multiple opportunities for investment and local production. The majority of South Africa’s vehicle exports go to the UK and EU which intend to ban EVs entirely between 2030 and 2035. This means that South Africa must keep pace or be left behind. This sounds a bit overwhelming, but we must try to meet the challenge with excitement rather than trepidation.
EV components such as PV panels, batteries, inverters, and cabling can all be made in South Africa and then exported to the growing global market. The rise in EVs will also increase growth in our battery storage market. As Zero Carbon Charge co-founder, Andries Malherbe, explained in the Business Live last month, developing value chains in the battery market alone could produce up to 60 000 jobs. The move to EVs will also mean that South Africa will save massively on the importing of oil and fuel products on which we spend more than R250 billion a year. Developing the ecosystem around EVs, such as smart grids, home and commercial charging stations, and infrastructure, also presents growth opportunities.
South Africa’s auto manufacturing sector is a large and important part of our economy. Currently, around 100 000 people work in manufacturing, 250 000 work as mechanics, and about 250 000 are taxi owners or drivers. These people will all need help reskilling, upskilling and adjusting to the new motor industry. The time to begin assisting those in the auto sector is now. The transition to electric vehicles is already happening and there is no time to waste.
A Just Transition
While the challenges ahead are undeniably big, if they are handled with care, the outcomes can be great. The transition should be seen as an opportunity to address some of South Africa’s biggest issues, namely unemployment and inequality. The green transition must be a just transition. This means putting people at the centre of all decision-making. The goal is not only to mitigate and prepare for the risks of climate change, but to use the changes in society and the economy as an opportunity to provide work, increase social inclusion, and address poverty and inequality. South Africa’s most vulnerable people—the poor, women, people with disabilities, and the youth—must be prioritised and empowered.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this all sounds a bit too optimistic and naive given the state of our government. But there is reason for hope.
In 2020, president Cyril Ramaphosa established the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), described as a “multi-stakeholder body” established to “advise on the country’s climate change response” and “support a just transition to a low-carbon climate-resilient economy and society”. The PCC has already proven to be a valuable asset. At COP26 in Glasgow, South Africa managed to procure a significant $8.5 billion deal with the United States for climate funding. As a report by the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings aptly put it:
“It is absolutely clear that, but for the arrival on the scene of the PCC’s freshly minted institutional capability, free from the organisational weaknesses of the public service”, this deal would never have happened.
The long and the short of it
The Center for Sustainable Development report stated that “investment in green initiatives could result in approximately 60% more short term job creation, as well as up to 140% greater economic value generation in the long term”. The operative word here is “could”. This will not just happen out of nowhere. South Africa must anticipate the challenges and be proactive in seizing the opportunities so that we can reap the benefits that are readily available.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Josie is a writer and researcher who wants to do her bit to make the world a little greener. She holds an MA in Philosophy from Stellenbosch University and is currently working on her doctoral proposal.