When coal dies, what of the coal workers?

In principle, South Africa’s development agenda shows that the country understands the need for a just transition to a low carbon economy. But what will this mean for the people working in the coal industry whose livelihoods will slowly dwindle? asks science writer Leonie Joubert.

Jobs in coal stations are threatened by increasing global pressure for countries to move away from fossil fuels.

Policymakers need a more holistic plan than merely catering for the retirement of older workers (Public Domain)

 If coal is the blood that oxygenates South Africa’s economy, then Mpumalanga Province is the country’s beating heart. Here, in a radius of just 100 kilometers, the furnaces of more than three quarters of the country’s coal stations burn around the clock. Their wolfish appetite drives the business of harvesting coal from surrounding mines, and the energy that has poured out of them for decades has seeded a booming manufacturing sector whose industries have set up shop nearby.

These coal-fired power stations will shut down eventually. According to energy analysts here, it’s a question of when this happens, not if. When they do, the impact will ripple through the entire provincial economy: the jobs in the power stations themselves will dwindle, taking the mining and industrial jobs with them. Every household that relies on these jobs for a regular income, will have to absorb the economic shock.

“All of these workers are at risk,” explains researcher Jesse Burton, at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Energy Resource Centre (ERC), “not because of the country’s climate policies, but because of the inevitability of the economics surrounding coal energy generation.”

Jobs in coal stations are threatened by increasing global pressure for countries to move away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile jobs in mining and manufacturing here – such as steel manufacture, and other heavy industries – are threatened by increasing mechanisation, and rising domestic electricity costs.

But in terms of job losses relating to the transition away from coal, the change doesn’t need to throw the region’s economy into a tail-spin, according to analysts. By learning from other countries’ mistakes, and planning holistically, South African policymakers can make sure that the transition for workers employed by the coal industry is as just as the wider objective of decarbonising the economy is intended to be.

Burton warns, though, that where similar moves away from coal have happened in other countries, these have often happened quickly. In some places, the local economies haven’t recovered yet (There is some interesting reading on this on the Coal Transitions website).

The ERC recently did the number-crunching on what the implications would be of phasing out coal in order for the economy to meet an emissions reduction target that’s comparable with South Africa’s contribution towards stabilising the global climate at no more than a 2°C increase in temperature, relative to pre-industrial levels. As with any gear-change in an economy, there will be trade-offs. In this case, the benefits of burning less coal in Mpumalanga will mean less local-scale environmental pollution associating with mining and burning the coal. There will also be the global benefits of reducing the carbon waste that’s being pumped into the atmosphere which is driving climate collapse.

But the impact of job and livelihood losses will be felt disproportionately in communities where there are already high levels of poverty and inequality, following decades of exploitative race-based labour practices under British segregation policies and the South African government’s pre-1994 apartheid state rule.

When it comes to planning for the job losses that’ll inevitably happen as a result of old power stations being mothballed, and new ones being scaled down, Burton says that policymakers need a more holistic plan than merely catering for the retirement of older workers who will eventually be given the golden handshake.

Many of these mines and heavy industries need semiskilled and skilled workers, and are actively involved in training people with the necessary skills to fill these posts. Mines are ideally placed to train people with transferable skills, so that when jobs in mining and manufacturing decline, workers can move across to other industries.

The mass roll-out of utility-scale solar and wind projects in South Africa in recent years can also help absorb the jobs shed by the coal industry: while photovoltaic panels aren’t made locally yet, the assembling and installation could soak up many of the more skilled jobs shed by the mining industry. But boosting this will call for strict policies on local procurement, to stabilised demand and produce a predictable market.

The country has strong environmental laws that call for mining companies to pay for and manage the rehabilitate of land and ecosystems that are damaged through mining or coal burning, but companies often don’t follow through on doing this restoration work because the state is slack in pushing for implementation of these laws. Rehabilitation processes could generate plenty of jobs, if the state forced them to follow through on their legal obligations to repair environmental damage.

Burton also argues that the country, and Mpumalanga Province itself, will need to boost other sectors within the region’s economy, such as agriculture and agricultural processing, which can be a lively jobs area.

Because this kind of planning and response spans the jurisdictions of more than one government department, an appropriate response can’t be housed in any single department, be it the Department of Energy, or Labour, or Trade and Industry. It would be better stationed within the Office of the Presidency and create policy and coordination bridges across the various departments, both at national level and down to provincial level.

The government recently created a presidential coordinating commission on climate change, which could oversee this sort of process, or it could set up a commission geared towards managing a just transition.

But one of the biggest constraints to helping communities make this transition in a way that’s fair and pro-poor, falls well outside the gambit of the national departments that manage energy, resources, and mining, argues Burton: the failure of our education system will continue to limit the prospects of so many people needing to find alternative forms of employment.


Leonie Joubert is a science writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her work focuses on climate change, energy policy, urban food security, and giving communications support to various academic and civil society organisations.

1 Comment

  1. Madhavan says

    Transition to renewables will create jobs provided the govt implements the process with a localisation clause,the solar panels must be produced in s Africa and not imported from China.The contracts to errect them must be given to s Africans.But political corruption may see the jobs exported to China

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *