5 Lessons from South Africa’s Just Transition Journey
The “just transition” movement aims to reduce the negative impacts on workers and communities of transitioning to a zero-carbon economy while ensuring that benefits are fairly distributed. Over the past few years, South Africa has emerged as a pioneer in the global movement that other countries can learn from as they embark on their own just transition efforts.
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On August 31, 2022, South Africa reached a landmark milestone with the presidential cabinet’s adoption of a just transition framework. The framework lays out a shared vision for shifting to an equitable, zero-carbon economy and identifies key policy areas and principles to achieve this.
While the framework is relevant across all of South Africa’s policy development, it should play a critical role in guiding the implementation of the historic Just Energy Transition Partnership (JET-P) that was announced at COP26 in November 2021, in which five developed countries (France, Germany, the U.K., the U.S. and the E.U.) agreed to channel $8.5 billon to support a just and equitable transition in South Africa. The initiative focuses on increasing renewable energy capacity and a faster exit from coal, while spurring innovation in electric vehicles and green hydrogen. Whether the donor countries will follow through on their promises by making specific financial commitments that fully incorporate a just transition remains to be seen and may well set the tone for COP27.
South Africa’s recent progress in its just transition journey is the result of years of collaboration between numerous stakeholders — both within and outside the government. After examining key milestones and setbacks in the country’s just transition process over the past decade, WRI has identified five key lessons that emerged from this review, including pitfalls to avoid and successes to emulate:
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1) Create a high-level, centralized body with broad representation to manage the just transition process.
The phrase “just transition” first entered the lexicon of South African policy in 2011, when the government published its National Climate Change Response White Paper. The paper outlined a vision “for an effective climate change response and the long-term, just transition to a climate-resilient and lower-carbon economy and society.”
As the movement gained momentum in the years that followed, just transition was mentioned in various policy documents by government agencies and sectors. However, there was no single government entity with an assigned mandate to manage the just transition work, and efforts were uncoordinated.
The idea to create an independent statutory body to lead the government's just transition work first emerged at the Presidential Jobs Summit in 2018. Social partners  at the summit agreed that this body — now referred to as the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) — would coordinate and oversee the just transition, including examining how to maximize the opportunities for jobs. South Africa’s cabinet approved the PCC’s formation in September 2020.
The PCC is chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa, with former Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Valli Moosa serving as deputy chair. There are 10 government ministers who also serve on the PCC and an additional 21 members representing business, youth, labor, academia, advocacy, civil society, research institutions and traditional leadership. The commissioners provide strategic guidance and technical advice, meeting on a quarterly basis and participating in ad-hoc working groups, while the day-to-day functioning of the PCC is managed by the Secretariat, headed by Executive Director Crispian Olver.
There are several aspects of the structure and function of the PCC that make it particularly effective, several of which are noted in this case study on the PCC. First, having the PCC elevated to the level of the presidency, with the president serving as the chair, enables the commission to work across all government departments. Having the PCC operate at such a high level also helps reinforce what a critical issue the just transition is to South Africa and the government. Second, the PCC draws its commissioners from all the most impacted sectors and organization types, making it broadly representative of the major stakeholder groups and lending credibility to its work.
If South Africa’s Climate Change Bill currently making its way through Parliament passes as expected, the PCC would be officially codified into law as an independent statutory body. This will formalize the structure of the PCC and give it greater access to government funding to carry out its mandate of providing advice on the country’s climate change response and just transition movement.
2) Engage stakeholders early and often.
Engaging stakeholders in any policy decision or process is important to ensure equity and garner support for implementation. Successful stakeholder engagement with parties most impacted by a policy ensures that their interests are represented in final decisions. Conversely, neglecting to effectively engage stakeholders can result in policy failure and/or creation of distrust between the government and key stakeholders.
For example, in March 2017, the state utility company, Eskom, announced that it would close five coal power plants due to poor economic viability and the need to prioritize renewables. From a climate perspective, such an announcement was welcome; however, it came as a shock to trade unions that had not been consulted before the announcement. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) called for protests.
In general, the government of South Africa has robust stakeholder engagement processes underpinned by a “social compacting” model that brings stakeholders with disparate views together to build consensus. Formal stakeholder engagement on South Africa's just transition policy process dates back to at least 2018 when the National Planning Commission (NPC) — an autonomous, independent body that sits within the Department of Monitoring and Evaluation — published a report looking at pathways for a just transition in Western Cape.
In the year following that report’s publication, the NPC held workshops in each province, which brought together social partners and experts for high-level dialogues on the just transition in their respective provinces. To conclude these workshops, the NPC held a conference in May 2019 where it presented the 2050 Vision for South Africa, which stakeholders developed as part of the dialogues. The vision states that South Africa will create a resilient, net-zero economy by 2050 that relies on renewable energy with equitable and sustainable access to resources and a healthy environment for all.
Robust stakeholder engagement is also embedded in the core principles of the PCC. Following the publication of the proposal for the updated NDC in early 2021, the PCC held a public hearing to collect input on the proposal. It then commissioned additional research to assess the proposed targets and ensure that South Africa is meeting its “fair share” contribution toward mitigation. This extensive consultative process led the PCC to recommend a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the government, which was eventually adopted. In September 2021, South Africa published an enhanced NDC, under which greenhouse gas emissions will decline a decade earlier than planned, align with a trajectory to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), and make just transition central to all climate activities. This is the first time South Africa’s NDC aligns with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
The PCC’s main task for its first year was to develop a just transition framework to help coordinate all related work across sectors and stakeholder groups. The final framework, which was adopted by South Africa’s cabinet in August 2022, presents a shared vision for how South Africa can create a zero-carbon economy by 2050 while supporting climate resilience, eliminating poverty and creating sustainable jobs for all. The framework lays out some of the key value chains most at risk from the transition — coal, agriculture, tourism, and automobiles — and sets key policy areas to help address these risks, including human resource and skills development; industrial development, economic diversification and innovation; and social protection measures.
The PCC conducted extensive stakeholder engagement and research to draft this framework. Throughout late 2021, the PCC hosted thematic dialogues with key stakeholders to gather input for the framework, publishing a policy brief on each topic. The topics included: policy dynamics; the coal value chain; employment and livelihoods; financing a just transition and water security. The PCC also commissioned a series of essays on adaptation and just transition written by experts in a wide range of fields, covering topics from psychology to waste pickers and agriculture. These initial consultations solicited feedback from a diverse range of perspectives, particularly from voices outside the energy sector, which had been the focus of much of the just transition debate previously.
Based on all these efforts, the PCC released a draft framework in February 2022 and engaged in extensive stakeholder engagement over the following months to collect feedback. As part of this process, it was essential to make sure that those most impacted by climate change and the transition — particularly the poor and vulnerable — were given a chance to participate and that their voices were given as much, if not more, weight as more powerful interests. The PCC held eight public workshops (results summarized here), focusing on geographic locations expected to be most impacted, such as Mpumalanga province, where most of South Africa’s coal production takes place. These workshops gave people in coal communities a platform to voice their concerns and to speak truth to power, as several government and business leaders also attended various workshops.
While participants at these public workshops seemed to value the opportunity to make their voices heard, many also voiced their distrust in the government and its ability to improve their lives. Their words revealed the myriad issues facing these communities, above and beyond the just transition discussions. The PCC will not be able to rebuild trust with these stakeholders overnight but listening to their concerns and taking steps to address them in the just transition framework is a critical first step.
The PCC also hosted workshops on the framework with key stakeholder groups representing labor and the private sector. These discussions culminated in the PCC’s Multistakeholder Conference in Johannesburg in May 2022, where key stakeholders came together to discuss just transition, the framework and hopes for the future. Following the conference, the PCC integrated the feedback from the stakeholder workshops, conference and written comments into the framework to create a document that more fully captured the key issues and goals of the people most impacted by a just transition.
By conducting such extensive stakeholder engagement in the creation of this framework, the government of South Africa has increased the chances that implementation of the framework will be successful and perceived as fair and representative of stakeholders’ views. This process can serve as a model for future policy development processes in South Africa and beyond.
3) Promote transparency and accessibility.
This recommendation goes hand-in-hand with robust stakeholder engagement. While the primary goal of stakeholder engagement is to ensure that people’s voices are heard, transparency and accessibility seek to ensure that people know and understand what is happening throughout the policy process.
In parallel with the stakeholder engagement being conducted by the NPC, throughout 2018 and 2019, the Department of Environment and Forestry commissioned the Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) to conduct research on just transition. This research led to the development of the National Employment Vulnerability Assessment and Sector Jobs Resilience Plans, which outlined key climate and transition-related risks across five value chains: coal, metals, petroleum-based transport, agriculture and tourism. These reports clearly outline the key risks facing these sectors, particularly the workers, both as a result of climate change and from a low-carbon transition. Having these reports publicly accessible provides affected stakeholders with critical information. The reports also provided a baseline upon which a lot of subsequent important research has been based.
The principles of transparency and accessibility are also embedded in all the PCC’s work. Since its first commissioners meeting in February 2021, the PCC has live-streamed and recorded all its meetings and stakeholder engagement events. This allows everyone to participate in real time or watch the recordings later, keeping them informed on the latest policy discussions.
However, accessibility goes beyond simply making resources available; they also must be presented in a format that is understandable to everyone. At the PCC Multistakeholder Conference in May 2022, some participants voiced frustration that information is often communicated in overly scientific and technical language, making it difficult for everyone to comprehend. Providing resources that are translated for a non-scientific audience and available in multiple languages is also crucial to ensure accessibility.
Unfortunately, the transparency and accessibility embodied in the PCC processes has thus far not been replicated with respect to the JET-P financing deal. Since the deal was announced late last year, stakeholders have been frustrated by the perceived lack of progress in formalizing and implementing the deal. In February, President Ramaphosa established the Presidential Climate Finance Task Team to work with the developed country donors to help develop a framework for the JET-P. At a recent PCC Commissioners meeting, commissioners voiced their concerns over the lack of progress to the head of the Task Team. Commissioners were particularly frustrated that they are not able to provide any updates to their respective constituents on when and how that funding will be provided. There are also concerns that the type of finance provided will further indebt the government if it is not provided in the form of grants and highly concessional loans.
In June 2022, following a visit from COP President Alok Sharma to Pretoria, the Climate Finance Task Team and donor countries provided a six-month update on the JET-P. The update summarized recent progress on just transition activities in South Africa broadly, but provided few new details on how the JET-P has progressed since COP26. Notably, there is no information on the form or timing of the funding, beyond the fact that it is being discussed. Consequently, this update has not greatly improved the transparency of the JET-P process.
The Blended Finance Task Team and Centre for Sustainability at Stellenbosch University developed a consultation paper on the JET-P that offers recommendations for how transparency can be improved, in addition to other principles to ensure that financing is “fit-for-purpose.” Recommendations include specifying the source of the funds and whether it qualifies as new funding on top of existing pledges; detailing the terms of the financing and conditionality; establishing clear milestones and timelines for providing the financing as well as an enforcement mechanism for missing deadlines; and defining performance indicators as part of a clear monitoring and reporting system. Implementing these recommendations going forward could help the Task Team and donor countries improve the transparency around the JET-P and create more space for stakeholder engagement. Without greater transparency and engagement, there is a real risk that the JET-P will not be accepted by key stakeholders who will be needed to implement the deal.
4) Align policy with climate targets.
Over the past 10 years, South Africa’s climate commitments have become increasingly ambitious, and some domestic policies have followed suit. However, there are some key policies — particularly in the energy sector — that are currently not aligned with South Africa’s NDC, threatening the country’s ability to reach its climate commitments.
In 2019, the government passed the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP2019), which added more renewable energy capacity to the proposed energy mix through 2030 and commits to decommissioning most coal plants by 2050. However, it also proposed adding new coal capacity through 2024. This plan is seemingly at odds with the ambitions laid out in South Africa’s Low Emission Development Strategy 2050 and the updated NDC.
The South African government continued to send mixed messages regarding the timing of phasing out fossil fuels in September 2021 when the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) released its own just transition plan. DMRE’s framework aims to support decarbonization in line with the IRP2019 targets, while also acknowledging PCC analysis that greater ambition beyond the IRP2019 may be needed to reach the more ambitious end of the NDC range. DMRE Minister Gwede Mantashe then delivered remarks at Africa Energy Week in Cape Town, in the midst of COP26, stressing the importance of oil and gas exploitation for Africa. Then in February 2022, Minister Mantashe spoke at the Coal Colloquium stating, “[m]any think that there will be no coal generation by 2030. I can assure you that there’ll be a lot of coal generation by 2030.”
These documents and statements significantly diverge from the messaging coming from the PCC and President Ramaphosa, who consistently emphasize the need to move to a just, low-carbon society immediately. As the IRP2019 is still the official guiding policy for the mineral resources and energy sectors in South Africa, DMRE and Eskom can currently pursue adding new coal capacity to the energy mix in line with approved government policy.
However, the National Infrastructure Plan 2050, which was approved in March 2022, has set out a path for updating the IRP. The plan states that the IRP2019 will be revised within the next three years to extend to 2050 and the medium-term targets will be updated to “reflect a focus on sustainability and least cost.” Compared to the current IRP2019 targets, which project coal and gas accounting for 27% of the energy mix in 2050, the cheapest energy mix would have 15% coal and gas. DMRE subsequently confirmed that it has begun the process of updating the IRP2019; however, it also stated that it will continue to add capacity in line with the current plan, which would mean adding more coal capacity.
Hopefully, the updated plan and other policies under consideration, such as the Climate Change Bill and Draft Auto Green Paper on the Advancement of New Energy Vehicles in South Africa, will help better align South Africa’s policies with the country’s ambitious commitments.
5) Build political coalitions and a social compact around the just transition.
Just transition can bring together organizations that might not agree on much else, yet all of which have an important role to play in advancing the movement in South Africa — including unions, NGOs, academia and the private sector.
Before the concept of just transition entered the formal policy domain in South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) made it a central part of its Policy Framework on Climate Change, adopted in 2011. COSATU’s definition of just transition emphasized the importance of uplifting the working class and developing countries, while industrialized countries pay for their share of emissions.
Since then, unions have continued to be a powerful voice in the just transition debate by consistently working to ensure that affected workers and the poor are central to all discussions. In 2018, the South Africa Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) hosted a Working-class Summit with more than 1,000 delegates representing 147 working-class organizations. The resulting declaration identified the need for a just transition that brings clean energy to all and addresses the interests of both workers in the energy sector and working-class people impacted by climate change.
As unions are so well organized and tend to be politically powerful in South Africa, they can serve as either powerful allies or obstacles if not effectively engaged. As an example of the latter, in 2018, Numsa used a High Court interdict to prevent the Minister of Energy from signing 27 new Independent Power Producer contracts, which would expand privately owned renewable energy capacity in South Africa. In an op-ed in The Daily Maverick, Numsa’s then-Deputy General Secretary Karl Cleote clarified the union’s position, stating that "we are not against RE [renewable energy]. On the contrary, we are fighting for a socially owned RE sector, a sector under public, community or collective ownership and designed to put people before profit."
NGOs and academia have also played a significant role in South Africa’s just transition journey. In 2017, environmental non-profit groundWork published research on the health impacts of coal, finding that pollution from Eskom’s coal fleet leads to more than 2,200 deaths annually and costs the economy $2.4 billion each year. In 2019 groundWork and Vukani Environmental Movement used this study and other research to file a lawsuit against the government, charging it with violating the constitutional right to clean air. In March 2022, the courts ruled on the case, deciding that the government is in fact responsible for improving air quality, and stipulating that the Environmental Affairs Minister must establish new rules within a year to improve monitoring and penalize non-compliance. This example demonstrates how researchers and non-profits can work together to increase pressure on the government to take climate action, in keeping with a just transition.
Research and academia were also critical in laying the foundation for the JET-P. In 2018, Meridian Economics started developing a proposal for a Just Transition Transaction (JTT), which was intended to serve as a template for what an early coal retirement financing deal could look like. In mid-2020, researchers at the University of Cape Town published a case study report titled Climate finance to transform energy infrastructure as part of a just transition in South Africa. The study helped to further articulate the vision for the JTT.
In the last two years, the private sector has dramatically increased its involvement in the just transition movement and announced many ambitious targets of its own. In March 2020, Exxaro, one of Eskom’s largest suppliers of coal, led the pack when it published its climate position statement that included an “aspirational target to be carbon neutral by 2050” and a commitment to support just transition. Later that year, Eskom established a Just Energy Transition Office and announced its own net-zero 2050 goal. While Eskom is a public utility, its decisions significantly impact private coal producers and the wider energy sector.
Private sector action further ramped up in 2021when Sasol, a major energy and chemical company based in South Africa, announced a net-zero 2050 target and a more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030. Anglo American, a mining company that mines platinum, iron ore and diamonds in South Africa, published its Climate Change Report 2021, which provided an update on its progress to achieve carbon neutrality in its Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2040 and announced a new goal to cut Scope 3 emissions in half by 2040. And Exxaro and Seriti Resources, Eskom’s two largest coal suppliers, signed an MOU with Eskom to develop renewable energy projects to power their Eskom-tied operations.
While these are exciting developments, the commitments must be followed by tangible actions from these companies. Continued pressure from key stakeholder groups and a supportive legislative framework will help ensure this happens.
Learning from South Africa’s Just Transition
Every country will face its own unique transition challenges as it works to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. But there are broadly applicable lessons from South Africa’s experience that others can learn from — both in terms of successes to replicate and pitfalls to avoid.
One element that is critical to all the recommendations above — and the success of any transition — is centering equity and justice in all aspects of the transition to a low-carbon society. Failing to do so risks replicating or amplifying the existing inequities that have contributed to or exacerbated the existing climate crisis. A just transition works to ensure that no one is left behind as we move away from fossil fuels and can help us create more equitable, sustainable societies.
 Social partners is a term frequently used in South Africa to refer to the stakeholders that come together to build consensus on a given topic, see for example: