Implementing South Africa's just energy transition is not without its challenges
Transitioning from coal – a bedrock of South Africa's economy – to a green future presents an unsteady but important shift for the country, writes Neil Cole, financing manager, Just Energy Transition Investment Plan project management unit.
South Africa's Just Energy Transition Investment Plan is a strategic initiative tailored to meet the country's energy requirements while fostering equitable access and sustainable growth. A pressing question arose at the 2023 Windaba annual conference, hosted by the South African Wind Energy Association: ‘Is the JET IP ready for take-off?’ Not only is it ready, it is being developed mid-flight.
The plan’s core aim is to transition from coal dependency to a more diversified, cleaner energy mix, encompassing solar, wind and battery storage. With a series of interlinked programmes, the country is driven to achieve optimal outcomes aligned with its updated nationally determined contribution targets. This, in turn, prioritises a just transition that bolsters economic growth and sustainable development.
Three cornerstone areas underpin the plan: decarbonising electricity, investing in new energy vehicle production and fostering large-scale green hydrogen development. These areas also coincide with distributive, restorative and procedural justice principles. Yet, implementing these ideals isn't without challenges. Factors such as historical inequalities, complex socio-economic disparities and entrenched interests often clash. Addressing past injustices will require reconciling of divergent narratives and allocating adequate resources to mitigate the impact of the transition in a way that also challenges the status quo.
The transition will encounter capability gaps and bureaucratic hurdles across all of government. Overcoming these challenges will require transparent governance, inclusive dialogues in decision-making, concerted efforts to bridge the capability gaps and the effective implementation of policies and plans.
A just transition lacks a fixed blueprint. The JET IP's rollout requires innovation, adaptability and a willingness to iterate, improve and refine along the way. As the Journal of Leadership Education outlines, this approach pushes conventional boundaries, bolstered by flexibility, resilience and a knack for converting challenges into opportunities.
A strategy that harnesses creativity, determination and resourcefulness opens new doors. Mobilising the projected $85bn needed for the JET IP in the upcoming five years – predominantly for electricity sector decarbonisation, alongside investments that mitigate the impact of the energy transition on affected workers and communities – demands ingenuity. Relying solely on traditional financial frameworks may derail the plan altogether.
The pledge of $8.5bn by the International Partnership Group at COP26 towards South Africa’s JET IP has been catalytic in attracting further pledges from other international partners. Although far from what is required, international pledges have been made within the framework of ‘common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities’, in which developed countries are expected to mobilise and provide financial resources to assist developing countries in implementing the objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change. This mobilisation should represent a progression beyond previous efforts.
Transitioning from coal – a bedrock of South Africa's economy – to a green future presents complex issues for the country, from potential job losses to economic restructuring. Simultaneously, fostering an environment ripe for renewable energy investments and technological advancements will require robust policies, strategic investments and broad public endorsement.
As the country accelerates implementation of the JET IP, to ensure a balanced and just transition, clear objectives need to be set. An action-orientated plan to achieve this will need to be adequately resourced and underpinned by decisive leadership, stakeholder engagement, open communication, regular assessments and an entrenched culture of accountability.