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Understanding the impact of a ‘Net-Zero by 2050’ on African Economies and Livelihoods: Defining a ‘Just Transition’

In May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report called ‘Net-Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’ with an emphasis on the necessity to make a radical shift away from fossil fuels to achieve neutral greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the latter may be a desirable goal, the impact of such a rapid and one-sided transition must be weighted against its impact on African economies and livelihoods. 

In May 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a report called ‘Net-Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector’ with an emphasis on the necessity to make a radical shift away from fossil fuels to achieve neutral greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. While the latter may be a desirable goal, the impact of such a rapid and one-sided transition must be weighed against its impact on African economies and livelihoods. 

This article will explore the insights behind the controversial discussion about a net-zero in Africa by approaching theorizations and definitions of a ‘just transition’. If your company is busy in the African energy sector, this article could be an interesting read to not only promote a ‘just’ but a ‘transformative’ energy transition in the future! 

Energy, Livelihoods, and Inequality

At a Glance

In 2020, out of 790 million people worldwide who did not have access to electricity, the majority was located in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. In addition, out of 2.6 billion people who did not have access to clean cooking options, 35% were located in sub-Saharan Africa. As the movement ‘’ has emphasized, South Africa might thereby be one of the countries, where a just transition is both needed urgently and the most challenging.

First, South Africa is highly dependent on coal in the mining, industrial and power sectors with the majority of its energy, hence 70%, coming from coal. Second, as the FES has underlined, the country faces ‘triple challenges’ such as high poverty rates, structural unemployment, and growing inequality. Indeed, it might be so difficult to produce a coherent definition of a just transition, because regional contexts, cultures and livelihoods play a role in estimating the outcome of different approaches to the energy transition on local livelihoods. 

Energy Equality and Energy Equity 

The term EE was coined by the environmental social scientist Giuseppe Pellegrini-Masini in 2018 and refers to “Providing all individuals with equal opportunities of using energy services, energy technologies, and of consuming energy and embodied energy for satisfying personal needs and nurturing capabilities”. Based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Pellegrini-Masini argues that policies which affect direct (i.e. energy poverty contrast policies, street lightning) or indirect energy consumption (i.e. income support policies, housing schemes) need to be assessed in relation with both basic and higher needs. 

While his findings might provide the inspiration to argue that a just transition must be carried out with a view for EE, one could even go a step further and claim that the energy transition is a stepping stone to reverse phenomena such as poverty, inequality, and unemployment some of which the energy transition might impact more negatively in its initial phase in the global South due to a lack of infrastructure, expertise, and access to energy. 

In a nutshell, a just energy transition might have to make an active effort towards energy equity. Especially, since much of the global North’s development and economic success has  come both at the cost of climate change, environmental destruction, and severe impediments of local livelihoods in the global South, as oftentimes envisioned through the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, but also the Mariana dam disaster in Bento Rodrigues, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and more recent disasters such as the Lower Sesan 2 dam floodings in Cambodia, damage by international companies (especially from the global North), must first be undone and compensated for through an active effort to promote sustainable development in Africa.

Development, Environmental Crime, and Corruption

As Prof. Dr. Matthias Schmidt at the University of Augsburg has argued, whereas the global North is on its way to the third stage of development respectively autarky, wherein sustainable development and tackling climate change are priorities, the global South is still busy with all stages of development at least in some regards: 

  1. Basic needs, access to water and sanitation;
  2. Urbanization and industrialization;
  3. Sustainable development and combating climate change. 

As such, promoting a just transition should not only consider local livelihoods, but also the historical wrongdoings of companies from the global North in the global South. The latter could also effectively lead to promoting redistributive justice and addressing environmental crime and corruption, which arguably might encompass more than the following actions considered the climate and environmental crisis: 

  1. Illegal logging
  2. Illegal trade in ozone depleting substances
  3. Dumping and illegal transport of hazardous wastes
  4. Unreported fishing

Assessing Definitions of a ‘Just Transition’: and the FES

The ‘’ movement, which was founded by a group of university friends in the United States as well as through the support of the author and environmental activist Bill McKibben in 2008, recently published their position with regard to a definition of a ‘just transition’. Based on the 2019 report “Remaking Our Energy Future: Towards a Just Energy Transition (JET) in South Africa”, published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation (FES), the movement argues that the just transition can be conceptualized along with three major categories:

  1. Just a Transition

‘Just a Transition’, as refers to the first rather technical category mentioned by the FES, connotes that for the sake of tackling climate change and environmental destruction, a transition from fossil fuels to renewables must be operationalized without losing any time. With this position having been described as pragmatic and technocratic, it emphasizes the urgency of environmental action without taking into consideration how a just transition might regionally affect individual livelihoods and local economies. Therefore, the FES might further refer to it as a “managerial transition”, which simplifies development in the present time. Especially, due to the long history of European colonialism in Africa, this definition appears highly problematic considering that it fails to take into account that a too rapid transition could catapult various local communities into energy and extreme poverty. 

  1. A Protective Just Transition

By a ‘Protective Just Transition’, the movement refers to what the FES calls a just energy transition (JET). While building on the latter technical approach, the JET approach has a view for the rights of workers and communities as well as for the potentially negative economic impact of the energy transition. As such, it is said to combine the technocratic and managerial approach with an incremental and reformist approach that foresees to tackle unemployment and a possible economic decline by the means of procedural and redistributive justice. This approach shows respect for the influence of the energy transition on developing countries, however, it stays a top-down approach that offers redistribution rather than participation and tailor-made solutions.

  1. A Transformative Just Transition

The third approach, which and the FES mention, relates to a ‘transformative just transition’. The ‘transformative JET approach’ has important additions to the JET approach such as a focus on energy democracy and social justice. Rather than portraying the energy transition as detached from changes at different societal levels (i.e. individual, communal, regional, national, global) and in different societal domains (i.e. food production, housing, transportation, etc.), this approach grasps that both the energy transition and the transition towards a more sustainable co-living relate to deep systemic changes. 

In other words, this approach shows an understanding of the interconnections between the restructuring of the economy, the energy transition, sustainable development and local livelihoods. Furthermore, it resonates with the notion that the energy transition could be a stepping stone in the creation of conditions in developing countries (i.e. industrial development, building of local expertise, knowledge production, etc.), which do not only enable access to energy but also access to leading and shaping the energy transition. 

Feel free to contact the Energy Transition Centre today for questions. 

·  Julius Moerder, Head of Energy Transition Centre

·  Oneyka Ojogbo, Head of Energy Transition Centre, Nigeria & West Africa

·  Leon van Der Merwe, Head of Energy Transition Centre, South Africa