Just Transition Toward A Low Carbon Future Is Littered With Many Hurdles

By Benedict Mongalo

Global warming and its adverse effects have become heated and controversial topics among government leaders, policymakers, corporates, and scenario planners in recent times.  Despite some climate change denialists, there is consensus in the science community that worldwide adverse and erratic climate conditions experienced in recent years are attributable to global warming.

Greenpeace Africa, an independent environmental campaigning organisation conducted research that resulted in a report titled “Weathering the Storm – extreme weather events and climate change in Africa.”  The report provides valuable insights on historical drivers of extreme weather events and more importantly simulates how Africa might be affected by global climate change in the future.  The picture is not good with records of observational data suggesting that extreme heat events may even lead to excess deaths on the continent.

In South Africa, we have recently seen unprecedented floods in the province of Kwazulu-Natal, severe droughts in the Western Cape and these events are not only isolated to the southern tip of Africa nor the African continent.

Many European countries recently experienced severe heatwaves, Antarctica is experiencing melting glaciers and sea ice which leads to rising sea levels, and the Americas have also been faced with rising temperatures. The change in weather patterns across the globe is well documented.

In view of the recent adverse weather events, there is consensus among some policymakers that urgent intervention is required to limit the potential negative effects of global warming.

To this extent, the Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 parties in 2015 at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) in Paris. The parties are sovereign states that included several African countries and the regional bloc, the European Union.  The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change whose goal is to limit the increase in global average temperature (global warming) to below 2-degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5-degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels.

To be able to achieve this ambitious goal, greenhouse emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. The transition to net zero emissions in 2050 is what has caused an enormous debate, primarily on whether this necessary transition would be just, inter alia social justice considerations being factored in determining this target and whether it is even possible.

One of the arguments advanced by emerging economies is often characterised by accusations that historically, developed economies built their economies on the back of fossil fuel driven industrialization, consequently damaging the planet and now would like to impose perceived unrealistic targets on developing nations.

The other argument is that a continent such as Africa accounts for only 3.8% of the planet’s carbon emissions and to achieve its often-canvassed economic potential, the continent requires a lot of energy.

With the continent endowed with natural resources, the view held by some quarters is that it is unreasonable to expect a continent such as Africa to not fully use fossil-fuels to achieve its economic developmental agenda.

Other mild views suggest that the 2050 target is too soon and the transition should be gradual and over time, adding that the suggested three-decade timeline is unrealistic, especially in the absence of immediate equivalent alternatives.

The advanced arguments are weighty issues which could potentially be a source for future confrontation amongst sovereign states if there is no consensus on how to address them.  In pondering these thoughts, one ought to ask, what is just transition, and what would it look like specifically for a poor continent such as Africa.

The phrase often used by various people in describing what they perceive to be just transition is that it should be a transition that ensures no one is left behind.  Broadly speaking, just transition would be the transitioning of economies towards environmentally sustainable economies in a manner that societies relying on fossil fuels, or any environmentally unsustainable practices are considered. These countries should not be unduly disadvantaged by this transition such that they also feel that the transition was just.

This transition is also by no means limited to energy, which often takes center stage in discussions, as it accounts for 73 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and is a primary economic driver. An illustration of this phenomenon would be that countries having vast mineral resources such as Nigeria and Angola, rely heavily on oil and gas resources for its revenue and/or its foreign currency earnings. South Africa relies on coal for its base load power generation.

Countries that have vast natural resources have built economies underpinned by these natural resources. In some cases, such as in South Africa, some towns were built on the back of the discoveries of these commoditiesFor example, a town such as Witbank was built on the back of coal mining discoveries and the resulting economic activity in the area followed the discoveries of the coal deposits there.

Once again, this is not just a Witbank phenomenon but also in other countries, the discovery of mineral deposits results in the commencement of economic activity.

Such as Mozambique where the immense find in 2010 of a natural gas field and the subsequent liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects were poised to significantly benefit this impoverished nation economically and socially.  This implies that if these countries were to actively reduce production of these resources in quest to meet the net zero goals, the immediate economic activity and consequently the immediate societies would potentially be adversely impacted assuming no other alternatives are provided.

Whilst there is ongoing debate and engagements around just transition, several countries are putting roadmaps and/or policies in place in quest to meaningfully contribute towards this journey.  What is clear is that the world is racing against time to ensure decarbonised of the planet. The alternative for inaction is dire for the planet. We hold the view that the transition for the African continent and other emerging economies would require significant collaboration and financial resources from developed economies.

Although governments need to take the lead on goalsetting and process, involvement of the private sector, cities, and wider civil society, including youth, is essential for the design of a balanced and just transition process aligned with global goals and meets multiple economic and social priorities.

The other significant step, necessary, is that governments should ensure there is consensus with societies on the roadmap to environmental sustainability. This includes labour unions in the mining sector that have already voiced their dissatisfaction and concerns about reduction of coal use/coal contribution in the energy generation sector.

Whatever the outcomes of these ongoing engagements, the road to net zero 2050 would involve tough decisions for governments.

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