Decolonising the Just Energy Transition: Community Expectations

04 Jan 2023
04 Jan 2023

Written by Leezola ZongweVimbayi Musikavanhu.


Developing countries, particularly in Africa, have opposed and questioned the energy transition movement. The dynamic viewpoints among developing countries have fuelled discourse that there would not be a global shift in one particular direction. The turning point in this paradigm shift appears to be decolonising just energy transition (JET). The universality of arguments made to advance the energy transition movement has led to the rejection and scepticism of the movement by developing, and specifically African, countries. This paper advances that a variety of views and methods toward achieving the singular goal of the JET must be accepted and incorporated into our legal frameworks to counter this rejection and scepticism. This paper discusses the possibility of, and avenues for, decolonising the JET and the community expectations of such an endeavour. The avenues identified include conditions of trade, investment policies, and carbon-counting accounting practices. These avenues are recognised by the roundtable as those that would have the biggest impact on decolonising the JET.

Definitional Clarity

The parameters of this discussion are placed within the context of ‘just’, ‘decolonisation’, and ‘development’. This context is employed considering the various perspectives of participants of the roundtable, and to aid in establishing transitional strategies. The Sustainable Energy for All goals, which emanate from Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, provides a framework for understanding development in the context of the JET. Development in the energy sector must aim to double the energy efficiency, expand the use of renewable energy, and provide everyone with access to modern energy in the global energy mix. In July 2022, the African Union adopted the African Common Position on Energy Access and Just Transition, which is a comprehensive approach that charts Africa’s short, medium, and long-term energy development pathways to accelerate universal energy access. The Position advances an African transition plan that does not compromise the continent’s development imperatives. From this continental document, countries must develop individual pathways.

These individual pathways, for countries and more specifically for communities, were considered the most appropriate definition for ‘just’ to the roundtable. What is just for a country and its people relies on the values and interests of the specific society. Although global principles factor into a country’s position, countries must consider individual community needs and expectations of what a JET should encompass. Decolonisation, in this context, implies a step toward promoting inclusivity and reflects a path put forth to developing just and equitable systems. Concerning the JET, this step should address access to capital, and trade conditions, and facilitate community expectations through civic participation in the transition. Regarding community expectations, decolonisation involves dismantling western constructs in systems of power, systems of ownership, and mindsets.

Trade Conditions and Capital Investment Policies

Trade is mostly dictated by the developer or the investor, which in a way is a form of neo-colonialism. Conditions of trade affect the transition process by determining the minerals to be extracted, how parties interact, and trade routes, among others. These conditions also establish the systems of power. The unrestricted flow of cheap natural resources, from the global South to the North, maintains the unjust international division of labour. Along with influencing trade policy, it is also important to address investment policies. Money is a significant factor in delivering a successful energy transition. There will be a need for large-scale investments to achieve net zero. However, the investment will vary from country to country based on their transition plans. It is thus necessary to decolonise capital investment policies.

Decolonising investment entails tilting economic imperatives of access to capital, and the means of that access.[2] Africa must prioritise strategic investments in food and renewable energy. To this end, industrial policy must be focused on sourcing inputs locally within Africa and reaching economies of scale to capture all its value-added within the continent.[3] These policies must prioritise the manufacturing of renewable energy infrastructure, agricultural equipment, water and sanitation equipment, as well as public health, education, and transportation infrastructure. These priorities will allow Africa to decolonise and decarbonise its economy while avoiding the traps of external debt, structural deficiencies, fossil fuel-stranded assets, and green neo-colonial development. However, power distribution is unlikely to shift unless monetary institutions are democratic.

Demands and plans for new ‘Green Deals’ are gaining momentum despite diverging perspectives about the extent to which colonial capitalism needs to be reformed to establish truly sustainable economies. These deals encourage countries to apply the least-cost energy system modelling tool when choosing from a variety of policy interventions to help explore investment decisions. This exercise aims to establish which investment decision will lead to optimal energy mixes and transition pathways in the long term.

Decolonising Carbon Counting

Carbon credits are perceived as a legal fiction largely due to a lack of sufficient understanding of the potential carbon credits could have. Consequently, errors have been made regarding contract negotiation concerning some renewable energy projects, particularly when it comes to carbon credits. Under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism emissions from industrialised nations are restricted, compelling governments to purchase certified emission reduction permits.

However, unpredictable prices make it impossible for lower-income African countries with limited funds and technical capacity to participate in the carbon market on fair terms. As a result, African countries have largely been left on the sidelines of the global carbon market. Moreover, predatory investors engaged in the dual sale of emission reduction certificates have benefitted severally due to countries’ lack of understanding of the value of these certificates. It is therefore critical and urgent to operationalise the national carbon credits and green assets registries to ensure that carbon credits are allocated to the host country where possible.

Advancing Community Expectations through Civil Engagement

As the developed world demands emissions cuts, the continent’s leaders are asking whether it is possible to industrialise on green energy alone, considering the impact on the most vulnerable people and societies. To this end, academia and civil society groups need to be robust and bring a keen understanding of the structural and interest-based reforms essential for the JET. Awareness campaigns must focus on the local and national conditions, and the existing legislative and political frameworks. These campaigns must assess stakeholder expectations regarding the current status of access to and affordability of electricity. Consideration must also be given to improving the sustainability of social capital and human capital as part of the equitable transition.

Governments must incorporate civil society engagement because the JET will not materialise swiftly if civil society is not involved in promoting grid development and investments in renewable energy.  However, given that civil society has periodically struggled to motivate policymakers due to interference from funders civil society groups must make structural improvements and attract funders with whom they share an agenda.


The three scenarios that need consideration in the decolonial agenda are the global context, the continental context, and the community context. Within these contexts, three aspects in need of change are identified: namely, systems of power, systems of ownership, and individual mindsets. The roundtable suggested tackling them in order of mindset, systems, and ownership. This order is suggested because, the ongoing campaigns for renewables and a JET often do not consider that if African countries are not intentional with their JET policies, renewable sources of energy can repeat the same pattern that we have seen in the extractives industry.

Decentralising energy systems of energy generation, transmission, distribution, and storage must be an Agenda 2063 imperative for African countries. The Universal Access to Electricity Model estimates the mix of technologies that will deliver universal access to electricity at the lowest costs. The model uses open geographic information and adjusts for local characteristics. Thus, as we develop a vision for a fair and democratic energy system, energy citizenship, and energy democracy are crucial concepts in this future approach. Pangestu highlights that these concepts must be addressed through an inclusive energy transition. This paper posits that a decentralised energy system would create a dynamic enabling environment and be a step toward an inclusive transition.


[1]  This blog derives from a roundtable discussion had at the MLiA Colloquium in November 2022 at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. The roundtable was jointly chaired by Dr. Anri Heyns and Ms. Laura Muniafu, with Dr. Bernard Kengni, Mr. Jabu Xaba, and Mr. Ncebo Mngqibisa as participants, and Ms. Leezola Zongwe and Ms. Vimbayi Musikavanhu as rapporteurs. The contributions of the chairs and participants are acknowledged and appreciated. However, any errors in this blog are borne by the authors.

[2] Cabaña, Gabriela, and Julio Linares. "Decolonising money: learning from collective struggles for self-determination" Sustainability Science (2022) at 1-12.

[3] Khoo S “Decolonising Political Economy: Reading Capital and Imperialism at Neoliberalism's Crisis Conjuncture" Policy & Practice: A Development Education Review 34 (2022) available online at (accessed 29 December 2022).