Energy transition: Importance of community participation

An overview

The concept of just energy transition has been in the centre of grassroot organizations for decades. It has been used in various spheres like labour movements and environmental justice campaigns as it addresses the externalities of climate actions. However, it only gained momentum over the past few years when it was used to solidify the interaction of three pillars of sustainable development namely: the economy, the environment, and members of society. South Africa is highly recognised as one of the few countries in the world to have an advanced national dialogue around the topic of just transition. This is because in 2015, it was the first country to mention a just transition in its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) which stimulated many dialogues, assessments, and reviews of existing policies towards decarbonization of the economy. Currently, a draft of the just transition framework is out for comments, and it highlights actions that the South African government and its social partners will take so as to achieve a just transition.

The narrative of energy transition is always centred around industrial and technological context, yet there is a need for community-based perspectives which discuss an array of social values and approaches that can be adopted as the world is transitioning.  This is because any shift in the energy landscape will have impacts being felt mostly at the local community level. To be considered as ‘just’ and ‘inclusive’, energy transition processes need to ensure fairness in terms of equal participation in decision-making processes for all members of society. Therefore, it is crucial to consider energy transition as a fixed rule rather than a vision and it should be based on openness and round table dialogues. Moreover, the outcomes and development agenda of the just transition should not be centred on top-down development approach, instead it should have strong element of community participation and inclusion to ensure that the transition does not leave anyone behind, especially the vulnerable members of the local communities. In order to achieve a ‘just’ and fair low-carbon transition, there is a need to identify opportunities of how local communities can become empowered to drive energy transition and meaningfully benefit in the low-carbon energy future. As the African continent is transitioning towards a low carbon future in line with the Paris Agreement targets to achieve Net Zero, social transformation should be a priority. To realise socio-economic benefit for renewable energy development, it is essential to involve local communities from the early stages of any just transition energy project. The involvement of these local communities will make targets more realistic as citizens play a crucial role in proposing solutions.

The key question should now be, ‘how do we get these communities involved?’

  1. Youth participation

A transition to a more environmentally sustainable future requires the government, stakeholders, enterprises, investors, organizations, and citizens to work together in ensuring resilience for today’s challenges. Any member of society whose livelihood is connected to the fossil fuel industry must be given the platform to participate in decision-making processes. Youth participation is key for any transition.  This allows young people to be architects of their own future and gives them a platform to engage in dialogues where they can address their opinions, hopes and fear as the world is transitioning. For effective participation, young people must have access to information and education that will equip them will skills and knowledge necessary for the new world. In a country like South Africa, where the rate of unemployment of young people is at its peak, the involvement of young people in just transition would offer sufficient opportunities and good alternative jobs while strengthening their decision-making skills.  Young people can offer any programmes and policies a longer perspective during its creation and innovative phases, allowing them to make more informed decisions in the future. The transition would also potentially create employment opportunities for young people as many jobs have been lost, resulting to the unemployment rate crossing the 35% threshold.

  1. An enabling environment

Another important aspect of just transition is the formation of a good working relationship between all levels of the government and the people on the ground. This allows for openness and creates platforms for addressing inequality gaps that exist between societies thus creating an enabling environment for just energy transition. Fundamental aspects that can help in creating such environments include capacity development, where members of society are equipped with relevant skills for the renewable energy sector. There is also a need for funds to be mobilize towards pilot projects in rural communities to channel investments for transformative renewable energy. It is not just the duty of the government to create these enabling environment. Various entities and actors like regional organizations, private sectors and businesses should come together and ensure that even the marginalized members of society are included in the transformation.

  1. Application of modern labour

The role of just transition has always been to protect workers whose jobs are at risk from climate change interventions as the world is moving towards a more sustainable pathway. Various studies have shown that jobs are most likely to be lost in sectors that are predominantly dependent on fossil fuel resources. This is why the transition needs to be smooth, with careful planning so that workers and the broad community relying on fossil fuel is not left stranded. Certain jobs will either be substituted or phased out without direct replacement as the world moves from higher to low carbon and less polluting technologies. Therefore, companies need to redefine their scope and train their workers so that they can be equipped with relevant skills for their specific industries. Taking for example companies that will shift from manufacturing combustion engines to producing electric vehicles. Their workers will now need to be more technologically inclined as less labour will be required.

Take home message

Climate change is a reality. The sooner the world adapts and find sustainable and inclusive solutions for all, the better. Research studies and frameworks that have been developed in then recent years have increased the urgency of generating tools, policies and strategies that can help the world to transition smoothly. What is mostly required is a joined partnership of all individuals, from different economic background to work together is bringing the low carbon future into reality.  For a smooth transition, there should be a balance of social equity and sustainable development.

Author- Xoliswa Ndeleni

Research fellow- African Centre for a Green Economy

Disclaimer: Some of the views expressed here are those of the author and are not in any way meant to represent the views of African Centre for Green Economy.