Transition from Coal to Renewables: Is South Africa Ready?

15 Feb 2023
15 Feb 2023

Written by Bernard Kengni.

In his open letter to the public on 26 April 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out that it was time to act urgently to counter the effects of climate change and that his government had plans to introduce measures for that purpose. Climate change has become a global concern requiring care when carrying out activities that tend to exacerbate its effects. The President’s statement and concerns raised by experts signal that the complete transition from coal-based energy should be taken more seriously, mainly because coal is the most carbon-intensive energy source.

Coal mining is of great economic significance to South Africa. The sector accounts for almost 100 thousand jobs as of 2021, and about 72% of the country’s energy needs are directly sourced from coal. However, the potential of coal mining activities to stimulate economic growth does not always materialise, especially in areas where the communities surrounding mines tend to remain mining-dependent. Moreover, the economic gains from coal exploitation come at a cost since reliance on coal for electricity generation in South Africa is not only a major environmental concern but is also deadly in effect. For example, in 2018, Mpumalanga was one of the worst places to live in the world because of environmental pollution from coal mining, and there is still little to no change.

Consequently, it is estimated that thousands of people die per annum in the Highveld, and other thousands more suffer respiratory-related diseases due to air pollution caused by Eskom’s coal-fired power stations. Besides, coal is a non-renewable resource which is bound to be depleted at some point in time. These concerns suggest that it is time for South Africa to seek a sustainable alternative to coal mining and its use. Importantly, South Africa must also decarbonise its economy to be competitive in a future low-carbon world and develop resilience to the anticipated adverse effects of climate change.

Hence, the transition to renewable energy is a potential solution to environmental challenges and health concerns resulting therefrom in South Africa. Furthermore, transitioning from coal-based energy to renewable energy will foster sustainable development as championed by the Constitution of South Africa, 1996 and subsequent legislation.[1] Sustainable development enables conducting economic and development projects such as energy generation in an environment that is healthy and beneficial for both business and the well-being of people living in or around thereof.

Mindful of the likely consequences of a sudden transition on the economy (businesses and jobs), a just transition is proposed as the key to balancing the undesirable effects of strict sustainable development. Just transition greens the economy in ways that are fair, sustainable and inclusive as practically possible to ensure that everyone concerned is accorded decent opportunities and not left behind. Strict compliance with the principles of sustainable development may entail shutting down coal mines and coal-fired power stations. This is a significant challenge for South Africa as the country’s economy and energy distribution is at crossroads. The growth or stability of the South African economy currently depends on the mining industry, including coal mining, which contributes to the country’s gross domestic product and job creation and is also the dominant source of energy. Hence, strict compliance with the principles of sustainable development means further increasing the woes and challenges of an already struggling economy (resulting in poverty and inequality) and unabated energy crisis.

Thus, a just transition for South Africa must ensure that the transition from coal to renewable sources of energy (low carbon economy) is conducted in a way that addresses present and historical inequalities, guarantees jobs and relieves poverty. It must also seek to restore natural environmental systems to enhance resilience to climate change. This will ensure that everyone affected by the just transition process is catered for. Similarly, while transitioning from coal, it will be crucial to enable a clean energy future and a sustainable environment. Just transition initiatives put people and communities at the centre of the transition objectives. Thus, steps in this direction may create a platform for stakeholders’ needs to inform the design of plans, policies and reforms needed to mitigate environmental impacts, provide support to affected persons and build a new clean energy future that benefits all. The just transition initiative also presents an opportunity to manage the risks associated with climate change, with an overarching goal of improving the lives and livelihoods of South Africans most impacted by climate change.

The transition from a long-established industry such as coal mining and related activities like energy generation requires challenging reforms, including law, policy and practice, to facilitate the effective transition. However, while there are several reasons for South Africa to transition from coal, there is a lack of an enabling legal framework or policy. Such a legal framework is crucial in setting out the vision, principles, and interventions designed to effect the much-desired transition, as advocated for by several organisations and people adversely affected by coal mining and its use. Nonetheless, South Africa is taking necessary steps to make laws and policies to enable a just transition from coal in the short and long term. The said steps include the draft Climate Change Bill which, once it becomes law, will offer critical advantages as it will be the first legal framework in South Africa to address the impacts of climate change and the just transition directly. In addition, there is also the Just Transition Framework for South Africa. Though it is not law, it offers guidance regarding aspects that future legal frameworks and policies should consider to enable the just transition in the language of law. Those aspects include inclusiveness, resilience, social protection and effective governance structures and systems.


[1] Constitution, s 24; NEMA Act 107 of 1998, Preamble; NEM: Air Quality Act 39 of 2004, s 2(a)(iii).