/ 30 March 2024

God edition: The energy transition isn’t just

Gettyimages 2050086904 (1)
A solar panel is installed on the roof of a mud hut in Qhaka, a village near Port St Johns. Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images
God Edition

As South Africa navigates its transition towards a low-carbon economy, the key concern for faith communities is whether it will result in just and equitable climate action for the country’s most vulnerable people.

This is according to Reverend Rachel Mash, the environmental coordinator of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, who said there needs to be recognition that an energy transition is already underway in the country.

She said the transition was taking place mainly because of the collapse of Eskom and that the middle class and businesses are responding to load-shedding by moving to renewable energy. “We are now in that exponential curve in terms of the growth of renewable energy.”

But the question for faith communities is whether this transition is just.

“The difference between politicians and faith communities is that the view of politicians is short-term. 

“For faith communities, the question that we need to ask ourselves is what is happening to the poorest of the poor?” Mash said.

While the transition offers an opportunity, “our concern is that opportunity is not being grasped”, Mash said, noting this is because the profits for energy — from the oil and gas industries, for example — have traditionally gone to shareholders and made the wealthy more wealthy.

Decentralised energy systems have the potential to most benefit the country’s impoverished people, she said. “We’ve been pushing for decentralised energy. Yes, we need the huge energy plants … but we also need every crèche, every school, every church, every mosque and every community centre to not just be generating its own energy but also to be generating the profits from that energy.”

Within this lies an opportunity for energy profits to be reaped by the poorest people and “not to go to some nameless, faceless banker” in Switzerland. “I think that this is one part of the just transition that we’re not seeing taken up: that decentralisation of the production of energy,” said Mash.

Although South Africa is being flooded with renewable energy imports, the real question is how much of this has helped to create local jobs. 

“We’ve got one of the highest unemployment rates in the world so there is great opportunity if we go for localisation and we look at the areas where people are losing their jobs … and we can say, ‘Let us set up our factories, hubs, in those areas so that we can be creating our own solar panels and building our own wind turbines instead of importing them and creating jobs.’”

Mash added that every university and college should offer courses for young people to learn how to install and repair solar energy systems to prepare them for this energy transition.

She said the big danger is that the transition “once again bypasses the country’s poorest people with the potential benefits being distributed to the rich”, which would be a tragedy. 

Francesca de Gasparis, the executive director of the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI), the government is making poor energy governance decisions by focusing on oil, gas, nuclear energy and Karpowerships.

These, she said, are expensive, unnecessary and often heavily polluting energy systems that should not be part of the just energy transition. At the same time, the country is mired in the load-shedding crisis “yet our energy systems still are crippled by inaction and quite frankly, politics and vested interests”, she added.

“It’s very difficult for faith leaders who are working with those who are the most vulnerable in society, who have seen the little money they have go more and more into buying unaffordable electricity and often dangerous sources of energy.”

Those who are most vulnerable in society are the most affected because they have less of a safety net and buffer against poor decisions the government is making, De Gasparis said. 

“Faith communities [are] concerned about the most vulnerable in society and their access to justice. When we think about the just transition, we think about justice in a moral and faith perspective. 

“What does justice look like for people of faith?” 

Although an investment plan can have justice at its root if it’s implemented in the right way, “we’re not seeing that justice”, she said.

The question of justice extends to the effect the energy transition “is having on nature, on animals, on our biodiversity and on that level of resilience and support for the natural world”.

“That same care for creation as the Pope [Francis] said, of caring for all creatures, and even the inanimate parts … so what do we mean when we talk about justice? 

“That for us is quite a radical thing, and is quite different from the economic focus or job creation focus that we hear about in this [just energy transition] investment plan.”

The SAFCEI believes South Africa is on the first step of a long journey.

“We’re just starting to understand and comprehend what we will have to do to become climate resilient and what does divesting from fossil fuels really look like, and this new compact that we need with the natural world,” De Gasparis said.

“It’s a completely different relationship, which we’ve been resistant to as humanity and as society. People don’t really want a lot of change.”

Although it’s still early days, some of the best thinking that De Gasparis has seen around policy levers and the difficult decisions the government needs to make is underway. 

“I’ve seen some presentations at the Presidential Climate Commission and elsewhere; there’s excellent work going on and people are trying to grasp this nettle.”

But there will always be people who “want business as usual; who want the same sort of benefits that they’ve been experiencing all this time and those are very powerful entities so you will have a lot of misinformation and pushback”.

De Gasparis said this is why people of faith have a questioning mind. “One of the things that faith teaches you is to have a sort of belief in the fundamental goodness, but not in a naive way, but also to seek out and look for justice.”

This is the lens that is needed in conversations about the just energy transition. 

“Faith voices are super important in this because we can see things, in a far-reaching way, into those who are most affected. By centring your efforts there, then you know when the job is done or whether we go further.”