By Nompumelelo Runji

The reality of climate change has made the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy more urgent. Yet as with any other historical demands for economic and societal transformation, the energy transition is contested.

A just and inclusive energy transition that can help respond to South Africa’s immediate challenges of inequality, unemployment and poverty is desirable, but is it possible?

This is the question that underscored the recent session of the Business Day Dialogues on A Just and Inclusive Energy Transition for South Africa, in association with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Ecumenical Foundation of Southern Africa.

While there is a growing consensus around the world about how fossil fuel power is precipitating climate change, the debate on how to address this problem is polarizing.

Bishop Geoff Davies, Founder, Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) is of the view that those who are insisting on the use of fossil fuels have a vested interest because of the billions generated by the industry.

“We need to recognise that money should be just the resource, the means of bringing about what we want. What we want is a peaceful and harmonious living planet so that we can live together in peace, so that we can share the abundant resources that God has given us on this planet”, appealed Bishop Davies.

Renewable energies are environmentally friendly, but critics have raised concerns about the economic viability of adopting these.

However, scientific models show that replacing fossil fuel generation with renewable technology is on a least cost pathway, making renewable energy more economically sustainable in the long-term, argued Mr Hilton Trollip, Research fellow in the Global Risk Governance programme, University of Cape Town. The challenge in the short to medium term is replacing the coal fired capacity with renewable energy infrastructure.

Fossil fuels are finite resources. Mr Trollip noted that with or without renewable energy, mines and plants will eventually shut down, therefore economic and social planning needs to focus on helping and supporting communities that benefit from mining activities to make the transition, including reskilling miners. This a major part of ensuring that the energy transition is just.

Renewable technologies also present the opportunity to decentralise energy generation, making it possible for communities to participate.

“The transition to renewables opens up an opportunity for everyone to be involved and to make energy generation more inclusive. The generation of energy will no longer be an exclusive activity of big companies but will be able to cascade down to everybody so that we participate in the generation of energy,” emphasised Bishop Dr Sithembele Sipuka, President, Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC).

Despite this enthusiasm for renewable energies, the concerns of those invested in the fossil fuel industries such as coal and gas cannot be dismissed outrightly. Major investments have been made into developing plants and into power distribution infrastructure.

The panel agreed that making the transition to more environmentally friendly and a socially and economically sustainable path to energy security will require compromises on the side of renewable energy advocates and fossil fuel enthusiasts.

This requires government to lead a process of dialogue between social partners as well as for civil society and communities to monitor the implementation of policies towards a just and inclusive transition that responds to the needs of broader society.