by Tracy Ledger

‘What is missing from the current narratives of a just transition? In our initial assessment, there are two key gaps in the current national just transition debate that will undermine significant progress towards a genuinely inclusive and socially just energy system. The first gap is created by the fact that many of the current proposals for transforming our energy system focus on the generation of energy.

This generation focus includes the impact of changing generation models on coal mining stakeholders central to most local just transition narratives. They focus on the future generation mix (renewables versus coal), the challenge of increasing the supply of electricity, the terms and conditions for new generation companies entering the market, and on restructuring Eskom to accommodate these changes.

However, an energy system comprises much more than the generation aspect: it also includes the distribution of that energy to end users. In fact, the end user is more correctly viewed as the central socioeconomic purpose of an energy system, rather than a distant afterthought. The kinds of distribution models selected, and the form, reliability and cost of distributed energy to end users has a significant impact on economic growth and socioeconomic development, via a number of complex causal linkages. In particular, there are linkages between the details of the electricity distribution model and key measures, such as poverty and inequality. These impacts are particularly significant in South Africa, given both our historically high levels of household poverty and inequality, and the current form of the distribution model. It is the aim of PARI’s Energy and Society programme to investigate in detail the nature and quantum of these impacts, and the causal mechanisms that drive them.

Our initial findings (presented in this report) indicate that, via a number of different and interconnected pathways, the current distribution system is actively and significantly contributing to increased poverty and inequality in a manner that is completely contrary to the intentions of both South Africa’s pro-poor transformation agenda and original policy intentions with respect to the developmental role of energy in a post-apartheid society. […]

The second identified gap, closely related to the first, is that the current just transition narrative in South Africa is predominantly a reactive one; effectively limiting its focus to
inequalities in the energy system that will be caused by a low-carbon transition in the generation part of the system. It generally ignores existing factors in the energy system that are exacerbating poverty and inequality, particularly those that are linked to distribution. These factors are unlikely to be addressed by either new generation models or programmes to reduce the negative impact of transition on coalmining communities, because they arise predominantly in the distribution part of the system. […]

A better understanding of the linkages between distribution and socioeconomic development is critical to our ability to design and implement a genuinely just energy system. If we continue to ignore them, we run the very real risk of restructuring our energy system in ways that will permanently entrench current mechanisms that are deepening poverty and inequality.’