With coal mining employing thousands, particularly in the north-eastern province of Mpumalanga, the impact of this industry on the environment and livelihoods is severe. Greenpeace has identified the city of Witbank, in Mpumalanga’s coal belt, as the world’s largest Nitrogen Dioxide hotspot, and a recent court ruling found that air pollution in the area infringes residents’ constitutional right to an environment that isn’t harmful to their health. This just transition away from coal is a necessity not just for those suffering the consequences of extreme weather but for lives indebted to the economic clout of coal in regions like Mpumalanga.
A key mandate of the partnership involves the need for an equitable and inclusive transition for workers and vulnerable communities away from current economic dependencies. While coal mining has been a bedrock of the economy, South Africa is blessed with immense renewable energy potential for the just transition, boasting an average of 2,500 hours of sunshine per year and 4,5 to 6,6 kWh/m2 of radiation levels for solar power; and wind power potential of up to 6,7000 GWs.
The partnership aims to mobilize $8,5 billion over 3-5 years to bring South Africa’s carbon emissions within the Paris Agreement targets by shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Renewable energy has already created over 55,000 jobs in the country, and, in Mpumalanga alone, up to 72,000 energy transition jobs can be created through 2030. The adverse, unfortunately, is that roughly 74,000 jobs are at risk. Sustainable job alternatives for such workers are crucial.
Protecting lives and livelihoods
President Ramaphosa’s maxim amidst COVID-19 has been to ‘Protect lives and livelihoods’, speaking of the importance of protecting people both physically and economically. As the nation faces up to the challenge of climate change, this approach will remain relevant. Regulatory action like the Climate Change Bill and proactive green investment drives like the JETP will be crucial as the country gears up for what’s to come. The country’s power landscape is already transforming, with the World Economic Forum’s Regional Action Group for Africa predicting a power transition to net-zero will be driven by three-D’s: Decarbonization, Decentralization, and Digitalization. Decarbonization sees a move away from fossil fuels, led by major investments such as the Absa-AREP renewable investment platform. Decentralization marks the progress from centralized energy utilities to the incorporation of more independent power producers on the grid, while digitization involves leveraging digital technology to advance the transition.
Former president Thabo Mbeki famously said “I am an African. I owe my being to the hills and the valleys, the mountains and the glades, the rivers, the deserts, the trees, the flowers, the seas, and the ever-changing seasons that define the face of our native land.”
The floods in KwaZulu-Natal may embed a greater sense of urgency among all about transitioning away from fossil fuels and adapting to future threats. Protecting this uniquely beautiful country and the diverse people that call her home may perhaps be the biggest unifying challenge that awaits all South Africans.