The just transition to a low-carbon Africa, which we need to address the climate crisis, must be rights-based and participatory to avoid exacerbating existing inequalities and driving conflict, writes Gugu Nonjinge.

Climate change is an emergency that demands rapid and far-reaching action. We must transform African societies away from reliance on polluting fossil fuels in order to avoid some of its worst impacts. Simultaneously, we have to recognise that the climate crisis is deeply embedded within a global context of growing inequality, deep poverty and significant unemployment.

While Africa has contributed negligibly to the changing climate with just about 2-3% percent of global emissions, it stands out disproportionately as the most vulnerable region in the world. This vulnerability is driven by the prevailing low levels of socioeconomic growth on the continent.

In Africa, climate change has led to human rights violations on a massive scale: millions of individuals have lost access to food, water, health and other rights essential to life. Therefore, addressing the climate crisis means more than stopping new fossil fuel development, reducing pollution and mitigating the impacts that global economic and energy systems have on the climate.

As we reflect on world leaders’ pledges to reduce methane, phase out coal or set net zero targets, we must acknowledge that it is not just the political, technological and environmental aspects of transitioning that need attention, but also that people are at the heart of the challenge ahead—such as the workers employed in primarily coal-fired power plants.

Moreover, we have to centre justice. In the context of climate change, this refers to the ethical and human rights issues that occur because of climate change. We must focus on rebuilding equitably in the interests of all, particularly the most vulnerable, like women, children, the elderly and marginalised communities.

According to the Just Transition Research Collaborative, “Just Transition—the idea that justice and equity must form an integral part of the transition towards a low-carbon world—is increasingly being mobilized both to counter the idea that protecting the environment and protecting jobs are incompatible, and to broaden the debate to justice-related issues such as the kinds of jobs and societies we envision for the future”.

This observation highlights the role of human rights-based social protection in ensuring that people do not lose their livelihoods during the transition to a low-carbon economy, as well as ensuring that the people who work in carbon-intensive industries have opportunities for decent work as industries change.

A just transition ought to be more than an environmental imperative; it is a matter of social and economic justice that calls for systems change underpinned by greater ownership of, involvement in and benefitting from the production of energy by local citizens, communities and businesses.

It calls for a paradigm shift in our thinking, where we centre issues of equity and justice and give special priority to those currently without access to reliable energy supplies and those whose livelihoods are affected by and dependent on a fossil fuel economy.

Identifying and adopting solutions that realise both the right to decent work and the right to a healthy environment should be at the heart of the just transition debate, particularly because the shift towards low-carbon economies will inevitably impact the world of work. While there is evidence for net job gains resulting from climate action, the International Labour Organization predicts that fossil fuel-dependent sectors and regions will experience job displacement.

In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address in February focused intensively on 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. Therefore, a move away from fossil fuels, if not well managed, could cause significant social and economic impacts, including conflict, as the coal sector employs 82,000 workers.

While just transition strategies so far primarily focus on helping coal regions transition to greener industries, all sectors need plans that promote equal access to the economic benefits from climate action.

For these transitions to be just, they require both local- and national-level dialogue among workers, employers, governments, communities and civil society. This ensures that people who currently depend on fossil fuel-intensive activities receive the support and investments they need to thrive in a zero-carbon future, and that the costs and benefits of climate action are distributed equitably. Furthermore, countries need legislation to ensure green jobs are decent jobs—providing fair income and safety while respecting labour rights.

The year 2022 is a significant one for climate action in Africa, as world will be gathering in Cairo, Egypt, for the 27th UN Climate Change Conference (COP27). Leading up to this significant conference, our activism and advocacy must stress the importance of rights-based, participatory climate action, which leads to more coherent, sustainable and effective outcomes.

Climate action that is not anchored in a human rights-based approach risks exacerbating existing inequalities and driving conflict in the transition. Going forward, it is necessary for African countries to formulate inclusive and evidence-based policies and strategies and analyse cross-cutting issues of a just transition, including those related to gender, youth, vulnerable communities and marginalised groups.

Gugu Nonjinge
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Gugu Nonjinge is Senior Advocacy Officer and Acting Advocacy Programme Manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.

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