Can South Africa’s just transition close the energy sectors gender gap?

South Africa’s energy transition passed significant milestones at the last two COPs (Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC). Over the last two years, a framework for a just transition was developed and adopted by government, considering the inclusion of groups left behind by the energy industry. Women in particular face numerous challenges in the energy sector: while they fail to profit from energy production, they are also deeply afflicted by the existential issues linked to coal-based energy production. Tunicia Phillips and Leona Schmitt take a closer look at South Africa’s just transition plans and how they seek to include women in the process.

Credits: IRENA, All Rights Reserved.

Planning big at COP

Back at COP26, held in Glasgow in 2021, the US, Britain, France, Germany, and the European Union committed to a partnership to finance South Africa’s transition from coal, financed with a USD 8.5 bln fund. This partnership is referred to as the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP). South Africa, which is heavily reliant on aging coal-fired power stations for its national electricity supply, pledged to reduce emissions by almost one-third by 2030 (in comparison to its 2015 pledge). South African president Cyril Ramaphosa presented the nation´s JETP investment plan at last year’s COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh.

South Africa’s economy was built on cheap coal, and coal remains by far the largest source of the country’s electricity. While this arrangement will be incredibly difficult to dislodge, the country’s drastic power instabilities may offer some levers for reform At the core of the problem, Eskom, South Africa’s state power utility is so heavily indebted that it is unable to properly maintain its fleet of aging coal power plants or expand the grid. The USD8.5bn, although largely comprised of loans rather than grants, is key to enabling the country to expand its generation capacities.

In September 2020, Ramaphosa formed the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), to support the just transition towards a low-emissions and climate-resilient economy in South Africa.

The South African Embassy in Germany underscored the importance of the Just Energy Transition Partnership shortly after it was announced: “At the heart of this partnership is the importance of a just transition, which includes support for workers and communities affected by the transition away from coal and enables the creation of quality green jobs. For the transition to be just, decarbonization must be implemented in a manner that promotes and sustains employment, livelihoods, and economic inclusion for historically marginalized communities and sectors of our society.”

Women and the Energy Sector

Even though the need for inclusion is addressed in the overall discourse, current issues and schemes of exclusion must be identified to ensure a transition that is actually just. Including coal industry workers can be highly complex to turn into reality but, to strike real equity, those already left behind by the energy industry must be included.

When taking a closer look at women in energy production, a double-edged problem is obvious:

Firstly, women are largely underrepresented in the energy sector: At Eskom, women account for just 31% of the employees in the electric utility sector and provide just 21% of the workforce in the coal sector, meaning they profit very little from energy production.  WOESA (Women in Oil and Energy South Africa), an association of 21 companies committed to increasing the participation of black women in the energy sector, states that black women in South Africa have been at the lowest end of any form of business opportunity, if not excluded from it at all.

Secondly, women, as well as rural communities, the poor, youth, the elderly, people living in informal settlements, and other vulnerable groups that are already more exposed to climate change impacts such as extreme weather events, are the most affected by the negative impacts of coal-based energy production.

Makoma Lekalakala, director of Earthlife Africa, a civil society environmental justice and anti-nuclear organization, and commissioner of the PCC stated in an online dialogue that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for food insecurity, water pollution, and land appropriation, hitting hardest groups that are already marginalized.

Makoma Lekalakala, therefore, stresses that the planned renewable sector should be based on a system of solidarity, not just replacing old fossil power structures with the same measures of exclusion.

Social Justice in the Just Transition Framework:

The Just Transition Framework, implemented by the presidential PCC, was conducted to engrave principles for and coordinate policies and governance arrangements affecting the transition.

The framework names three principles for Social Justice that support an environmentally, economically, and most important socially sustainable transition: Distributional Justice, Restorative Justice, and Procedural Justice.

Distributional Justice points towards the necessity of fairly distributing risks and opportunities resulting from the transition. It is pointed out that impacted workers and communities cannot continue to bear the brunt of overall burdens and costs. It is essential, that the adjustment costs are borne by those historically responsible for the problem.

Restorative Justice aims to rectify historical damages against individuals, communities, and the environment. This form of reparation can usually be addressed with the polluter-pays principle. The framework does not clearly state whether the polluters are being held responsible.

“Nothing about us without us!” embodies the argument of Procedural Justice. This means taking an active part in decision-making regarding decisions that affect all, especially those currently left out of ruling and controlling. This requires structural changes and power redistribution.

Implementation opportunities

At COP 27, the JETP- Framework was translated into the JETP- Investment Plan, which highlighted key players and institutions for the implementation of a Just Transition. Although, as noted, the bulk of the funds will be allocated to expanding the country’s grid, some funds have been set aside for supporting reskilling initiatives and community owned renewable energy schemes. Besides reliable governmental steering, appropriate funding, and capital-disbursement management by intermediary institutions, the ongoing identification of needs on the community level with an emphasis on project visibility and cooperation with intermediary social partner organizations to support project investments were named. Private investments in renewable energy infrastructure are highlighted as necessary.

But in addition to governmental action in implementation, networking on local- and national levels among those excluded can help them to tap into their potential. A great (but admittedly large-scale) example is The Women Energize Women Conference.  Implemented by German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, together with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) and German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE) taking place in May 2022. The conference invited women from all over the world to connect, gain more visibility and shape the discussion on the energy transition.

Live with each other and the planet

Lekalakala sums it up greatly by stating: “The Just Transition is about changing relations of power between people to create a more equal society where people can live with each other and with the planet.”

As acknowledged in the PCC- developed Framework and the minds of many, a just transition is the only way to deal with upcoming upheavals due to local climate change adaptations. If conducted properly, it creates a win-win situation between South African social and environmental sectors. To include most affected groups in a reasonable way, especially those suffering from multi-level exclusion, must be the number one priority coupled with a guarantee that those groups will benefit from the energy transition, rather than continuing to suffer from it. People and the improvement of their lives and livelihood must be at the center of the climate change response, a fact that is especially pressing for those most impacted.

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