Pathways to unlocking green jobs in South Africa**

South Africa is facing an unprecedented unemployment crisis, where it’s estimated that almost 60% of the country’s youth are unemployed. This high level of unemployment is a ticking time bomb as its unsustainable as it will deepen the high levels of inequality which are already very prevalent. The need to create more decent jobs is not only a necessity, but also extremely urgent.

The transition to a low carbon economy, holds enormous opportunity if it’s well harnessed to create decent jobs. Even though the anticipated job losses in the coal sector, could be a major drawback in the short term, opportunities for job creation could be created in other related green sectors. However, this would require the prioritisation of reskilling interventions and accelerated investments in the local economy, in order to diversify.

There is a clear need for the creation of green jobs in order to ensure that South Africa’s just transition is successful. Green jobs are understood as decent jobs that contribute to the preservation or restoration of the environment, whether they are in traditional sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, construction, waste management, water management etc, or in new emerging green sectors such as renewable energy and energy efficiency, electric vehicles etc (IOL, 2016).

It’s therefore clear that unlocking ‘green’ jobs is an economy wide endeavour, not restricted to specific sectors. However, despite the need for green jobs creation in South Africa, on the ground change remains very limited and a clear path forward for unlocking green jobs is yet to emerge (World Resources Institute, 2021). Due to the high rates of unemployment, there is high probability that the displaced workers from the coal sector will struggle to find new jobs if retraining and reskilling programmes are not provided.

Considering that the transition to a low carbon economy is inevitable, it’s critical to understand where green jobs could be unlocked and the nature of those jobs. There is also a need understand the skills and qualifications that will be required for the green jobs that will be created.

The risk of just transition to the coal sector value chain workforce and communities

South Africa needs to grapple with the transition risks associated with decoupling its economy from a high carbon intensive pathway. More specifically, the risk of job losses in the coal sector, which will likely worsen unemployment in the country. Even though the sector is in decline, in 2021, the coal mining industry provided around 0.4 million jobs for South Africa’s workforce, with 80 000 direct jobs, while creating 200 000 – 300 000 in indirect and induced jobs in the broader coal value chain and economy (NBI, 2021). Even though jobs in the coal sector are receding, the need to create alternative jobs is extremely urgent if South Africa is to achieve its decarbonization agenda.

Figure 1: Total coal mining employment in South Africa Historical and Projected (1975-2045), Source: Strambo et al, 2019 adapted from Burton et al, 2018.

The job losses will lead to stranded communities, who are despondent, unemployed, and unable to provide for their basic needs. Such a situation could lead to social unrests, and increase the vulnerability of those in most need, such as women and children. For example, in a recent fieldwork Mpumalanga Province, local community members shared their anxiety about job losses, both direct and indirect because of the decommissioned Komati Coal power plant. For example, a young lady we spoke to who sold snacks on the roadside, said that coal transporters were her main customers, and was worried about her livelihoods if she is unable to trade, when traffic dwindled.

Conceptualising green jobs in the just transition

Green jobs can be created in a variety of sectors including renewable energy, green hydrogen, and energy efficiency, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and other traditional industries.  A job can be deemed green if it uses less energy and raw materials, limits greenhouse gas emissions, minimizes waste and pollution, contributes to adaptation to climate change, and safeguards and restores ecosystems (ILO, 2016). Green jobs are crucial in South Africa, particularly in light of the fact that the country is one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases globally, as well as the pressing need for the conservation and preservation of the nation’s natural resources and the transformation of current production patterns toward sustainable development (McLean, 2018). The growth of new technologies, innovations, industries, and processes in South Africa has the potential to open up a wide range of employment prospects (which can be categorized as green jobs) Borel-Saladin and Turok ,2013).

The need for reskilling and retraining of the workforce to unlock green job opportunities

In order for the transition to be successful in South Africa and ensure that no one is left behind there is a need for skilled workforce. To be able to unlock green ‘decent’ job opportunities, industrial strategies, investment in new skills, the inclusion of workers and communities need to be prioritised (Borel-Saladin and Turok, 2013). Currently South Africa’s ambitious climate commitments do not clearly outline how the workforce will be skilled in order to benefit from the transition. It is without a doubt that the green transition in South Africa has the potential to create millions of green jobs if the country invests in reskilling, upskilling and retraining of the workforce.

However, these investments need to be channeled into appropriate skills that are needed in order to drive the just transition. The skills needed will range from low to high level, which will require different strategies to build. To absorb the majority of the unemployed, building skills in areas such as home system solar installation, cleaning of solar panels at the solar plants, climate smart agriculture and driving of electric buses hold high potential to create mass jobs. Such skills can be crucial for workers that are likely to lose their jobs in sectors such as the coal sector who often do not have the necessary educational background needed for medium and high-skilled occupations.

Where can green jobs be unlocked in South Africa

Several programs have been implemented in South Africa since the concept of green jobs was declared urgent, with the aim of promoting green jobs and decent employment during the country’s transition to a greener economy. Such programmes include programmes such as the “Green jobs for sustainable development: concepts and practices” facilitated by Development Bank of Southern Africa in partnership with the Department of Environmental Affairs, and the International Labour Organization (ILO), through its International Training Centre, Green Jobs Programme and Decent Work Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa (ILO, 2015). Such programmes are mainly meant to equip both public sector and private sector representatives about where opportunities and challenges for the creation of green jobs potential exist in South Africa. Such programmes are crucial for equipping the policy makers and the industry on where can exactly green jobs be created in South Africa.

There are 26 green segments and technologies divided into key four sectors which are identified as having the potential for creating green jobs in South Africa (Lethoko, 2014; Borel-Saladin and Turok, 2013). The key priority sectors that are earmarked for creating green jobs in South Africa include:

  • Energy generation: Renewable energy (Wind power, solar and hydro); Green hydrogen; Fuel based renewable energy (Waste to energy); Liquid fuel (Biofuel).
  • Energy and resource efficiency: Green buildings (Insulation, lighting, windows, solar water heaters, rain water harvesting); Transportation (Bus Rapid Transport (BRT)); Industrial (Energy efficient motors, mechanical insulation).
  • Emission and pollution mitigation: Pollution control (Air pollution control, electric vehicles, clean stoves, acid water treatment); Carbon capture and storage; Recycling.
  • Natural resource management: Biodiversity conservation and ecosystem restoration (Conservation and restoration/ nature based solutions); Soil and land management (agriculture) (Maia et al, 2011).

Despite the fact that these industries have been identified as crucial for producing green jobs in South Africa, difficulties still exist. The South African government’s lack of effective plans to use the skills acquired in the short-term green jobs created during the just transition processes, like the construction of renewable energy plants, is the other major obstacle standing in the way of creating sustainable green jobs. The majority of green jobs produced by programmes like the Expanded Public Works Programs and the development of renewable energy facilities are temporary and offer low salaries, and as a result, they cannot be characterized as green and decent employment.  Additionally, research from South Africa shows that the country has trouble retaining workers who acquired new skills while working on renewable energy projects or supporting the REIPPPP with training or capacity building (Leigland and Eberhard, 2018). As soon as the construction of renewable energy plants are completed, people have no other place to make use of the skills learned from the construction of renewable energy plants.

Key recommendations for driving the uptake of green jobs and skills training programmes in South Africa

The development of the Just Energy Transition Framework, Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET IP), and other policy frameworks that support the just transition show how much South Africa has invested in advancing the just transition. However, efforts to prioritize and create green jobs in the country are still behind schedule or are not sufficiently clear as to how the workers who will be affected by the just transition will be absorbed. This is demonstrated by the high level of fear among coal industry workers who claim that it is unclear how precisely their employment will be protected. This shows how many employees in polluting industries are still doubtful about the promise of green jobs in the just transition. However, much work still needs to be done to ensure that the transition is just and fair and leaves no one behind, especially when it comes to creating the jobs that are desperately required in the country. South Africa has been one of the primary leaders in the just transition debates and plans in Africa. The recommendations that follow are essential for ensuring that green jobs are created and the most vulnerable members of society are not left behind in the transition.  Particularly those who are employed along the value chain of the coal industry which are more likely to be impacted by the transition as a result of the closure of coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

  • Recognise gender dynamics in the transition to a low carbon economy

Although some policies have been developed to support and promote gender equality in South Africa, several challenges still exist. According to Statistics South Africa (2022), women are more likely to be unemployed than men and are less likely to participate in the labour market than their male counterparts.[1] Women in South Africa continue to be underrepresented in education fields such as physics, mathematics or engineering, which are critical in the just transition.[2] This demonstrates that women will continue to be underrepresented within those fields, thus limiting their inclusion, especially in top management positions, if no necessary interventions are implemented to empower and support them.  There is a need to therefore prioritize women in the transition, by ensuring their effective participation and creating opportunities which target women and youth. Being the most vulnerable, without such targeted interventions, it will be difficult to achieve the ‘just’ element of the just transiton in South Africa.

  • Focus on reskilling and retraining of workers linked to the production and use of fossil fuels and other industries that excessively consume natural resources

There are numerous initiatives to improve the skills of South African employees whose jobs are associated with the extraction and use of fossil fuels. However, the majority of these initiatives for retraining and reskilling have mostly remained as ideas or discussions. Since many workers are still sceptical of the programs’ plans for reskilling and retraining, implementation is still not evident on the ground. The biggest issue facing South Africa is that it is still unclear who would run these retraining and reskilling programs; at the moment, it is unclear whether the private or public sector is intended to run them. This necessitates the development of precise plans and strategies on how to reskill and retrain employees so that they can be hired for green occupations that are intended to revolutionize every aspect of the economy. The development of training and reskilling initiatives for employees involved in the production and use of fossil fuels as well as other sectors that excessively deplete natural resources, generate copious amounts of waste, and pollute the environment should be led by the government with the support of the industry.

  • Strengthen social protection and support green investment in key economic sectors

In order to lower poverty and inequality rates for employees who will be impacted by the just transition, it is important to build effective social safety mechanisms. Social protection schemes like temporary wages and pension guarantees for workers in the impacted industries, including the coal value chain, are planned. However, in order to protect the concerned employees in the industries that would be impacted by the transition, such strategies have not been properly outlined. Since the majority of the skills in these industries do not require a lot of education, the government also needs to increase investments in important industries like recycling, urban farming/climate-smart agriculture, electric bus mechanics, and the manufacturing of clean technologies. The ability to absorb the workers who are expected to be impacted in the coal value chain may depend on this. Since the jobs created in the renewable energy development have shown to not be sustainable for low-skilled employees since they are temporary and do not offer significant earnings compared to the coal value chain industry, these industries could prove crucial in the just transition.

  • Capacity building in order to have adequate resources to deliver the uptake of green jobs

Building the ability of local officials, especially local government officials, as the majority of them are not well informed about the just transition, is necessary to achieve a just transition. Local remote and rural municipalities around the country have shown this to be evident. Due to a shortage of private businesses in rural areas, the local governments play a crucial role in job creation. Therefore, enabling the creation of green jobs in South Africa will require providing the local government officials with the required expertise and resources.


There is significant potential for the creation of green jobs, especially given the perceived difficulties in South Africa’s just transition initiatives. To do it, though, the public and private sectors would need to work closely together. To ensure that jobs are created, South Africa has established an enabling policy environment for the just transition. But the implementation of the policies still presents a challenge. There is a precise definition of what is required to achieve the just transition in South Africa in order to leave no one behind this is demonstrated in strategies such as the Just Transition Framework. Millions of green employment will be produced in South Africa, according to the ILO, but coordination will be essential, as was already mentioned.


Dr Mao Amis & Sonwabile Lugogo1

1 African Centre for a Green Economy

**This article was first published in the Sustainability Handbook Vol. 7. The original article can be read found here: