Given South Africa’s jobs crunch, new jobs in the renewable energy sector are urgently needed

South Africa is in the throes of a jobs crunch. Next week, Statistics South Africa will release its fourth-quarter labour force survey which, after reporting consecutive record highs, will lay bare the depth of the crisis.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address last week was preoccupied with job creation. There is good reason for this; in the third quarter of 2021 the unemployment rate rose to 34.9%, the highest level on record.

The president’s address also gave a nod to another crisis, which itself will have an effect on the future of employment in the country: climate change.

Experts have warned that the climate crisis and efforts to decarbonise the economy stand to deepen unemployment, especially if there are no policy interventions to create new jobs in the renewable energy sector.

Sonia Phalatse, a researcher at the Institute for Economic Justice, said climate change will worsen the state’s capacity to address the economic crisis.

“The climate crisis and economic crisis are intricately intertwined and can be addressed by policymakers by implementing a truly just transition towards a green sustainable economy that protects workers and creates decent jobs.” 

Recent data from the United Kingdom demonstrates that a green job drive may be easier said than done.

On Thursday, the UK’s Office for National Statistics released new data on the size of that country’s green economy and the progress made, since 2014, in green job creation. According to the data, there was no significant change in the turnover and employment in the UK’s low-carbon and renewable energy economy between 2014 and 2020. 

In 2020, businesses activity in the green economy generated £41.2-billion (about R840-billion) in turnover. There were 207 800 full-time equivalent employees working those businesses.

The disappointing figures are a blow to the UK government’s green economy ambitions, which envisions the creation of two million skilled green jobs by 2030.

In South Africa, the presidential climate commission has started a roadmap for the just transition. As South Africa transitions to a green economy — which will, among other things, involve decommissioning the country’s coal fired power stations — workers stand to lose their jobs. 

The just transition envisioned by Ramaphosa and his climate commission will protect workers from the impending spate of job losses, while also creating green jobs.

During his State of the Nation address last week, Ramaphosa said: “In the last year, we have made important strides in the fight against climate change, and, at the same time, securing our economic competitiveness.”

Since the presidential climate commission was established just over a year ago, Ramaphosa said, “it has done much work to support a just transition to a sustainable, inclusive, resilient and low-carbon economy”.

But, according to the Green Economy Tracker — which was launched earlier this week — there is currently no specific green jobs policy in place. The tracker notes that the government “has made faltering steps towards a greener economy”, with a 2011 national strategy for sustainable development and the 2019 introduction of the carbon tax. 

“But overall commitment to sustainable economic reform is tentative at best: the 2011 NSSD [national strategy for sustainable development] expired in 2015 and has not been replaced, and despite world-class solar energy resources, South Africa has been agonisingly slow in weaning itself off domestic coal for energy use.”

According to the tracker, the expired national strategy for sustainable development mentions green jobs, but it lacked concrete measures. The 2011 Green Economy Accord, which formed part of the New Growth Path framework, aspired to the creation of five million new jobs by 2020 through sustainability and environmental programmes, “but again provided little information on implementation”. 

Despite lagging in planning terms, the tracker notes, there are signs of ambition in South Africa’s Covid-19 Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, which incorporates a Presidential Employment Stimulus aiming to create 800 000 jobs, including in some green sectors.

Unfortunately, Phalatse said, South Africa “is locked into a limiting economic policy regime that has not moved the needle on a coherent green industrialisation quickly enough”. 

“The real danger is in greenwashing the just transition effort by claiming to address ecological destruction with no serious commitment to rethink the structure of the economy to truly support and enable a just transition,” Phalatse added. 

“If this is not done, the result will be a worsening unemployment and social reproductive crisis.”

Now has never been a better time for South Africa to address its unemployment crisis through a just transition, Phalatse said. “The transition to a green economy must support the families and communities that will inevitably be the hardest hit by the transition. This includes the millions of workers that work on coal mines, for example, at Eskom and in the many supply chains connected to the coal-generation industry.” 

The coal mining sector, Phalatse noted, currently employs about 80 000 people and accounts for 19% of the GDP of Mpumalanga. “A systemic approach to addressing the unemployment crisis in South Africa will need structural transformation and not structural reforms — which we argue is a continuation of existing economic policies that led us to the current economic crisis.”

Structural transformation reverses the economy’s over-reliance on commodities and fossil fuel production by focusing on the areas of the economy that increase the possibilities for decent paying, productive, inclusive and sustainable employment opportunities, Phalatse said.

“To achieve this, South Africa will need to diversify its sources of production, both for domestic consumption and exports, requiring active government-led support for investments in particular economic and social infrastructures in the green economy.”

Phalatse noted that Covid-19 — which has necessitated that governments find ways to recover from the pandemic-induced slump — has sparked calls from civil society across the world to repurpose economies so that they support livelihoods and not profits. “South Africa is no different. And we were behind on addressing the unemployment question even before the pandemic hit,” Phalatse said.

“However there are measures and possible policies to address the unemployment crisis, such as a universal basic income and basic job guarantee in the context of a shift to a green economy.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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