More than a just transition

Image credit: Singkham on Pexels.

South Africa is one of the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting countries due to its heavy reliance on coal for most of its energy needs. Shifting away from carbon-intensive forms of production to more sustainable approaches means that some jobs will be lost, while new ones will be created. A concern for policy makers is ensuring that this transition will be just, so that it will not exacerbate existing inequalities; this is especially important in the South African context, where unemployment, poverty, and inequality levels are already high. A key consideration therefore, is to understand which segments of the population and which regions are most at risk as a result of the transition, which segments of the population and which regions stand to benefit, and the actual possibilities of managing the burden of this energy transition fairly. A primary example, the coal mining industry, and the entire supply chain linked to that sector, employs a significant number of workers – many of whom are young – whose employment is under threat in any transition to a green economy.

South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET IP) for the initial period of five years (2023-2027) puts into action the historic Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) forged at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) between the government of South Africa and the governments of France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States, and the European Union (forming the International Partners Group [IPG]) (The Presidency, Republic of South Africa, JET IP 2023–2027, 2022). Alongside this, the JET Implementation Plan 2023–2027 is a roadmap that enables the country to take targeted and coordinated steps towards meeting its decarbonization commitment in a manner that will deliver just outcomes for the people affected by the energy transition. The JET IP 2023–2027 is built on the Just Transition Framework adopted by Cabinet in 2022, which affirms that South Africa’s energy transition must be embedded in redistributive, restorative, and procedural justice.

The framework and plans indicate that, to decarbonise South Africa’s economy within the Nationally Determined target range of 350–420 Mt CO2 eq[1] by 2030, investments are needed in three priority sectors: electricity, New Energy Vehicles (NEVs), and Green Hydrogen. Additional investments will be needed in the two cross-cutting areas of skills development and the management of municipalities.

The coal mining and coal-power producing province of Mpumalanga too will require specific investments to diversify its economy and develop new opportunities for people dependent on the coal value chain. Mpumalanga is the region that contains not only a concentration of South Africa’s coal mines, but also of those coal plants that are reaching the end of their life cycle and are being shut down. This makes it the region at the centre of the discussions on the just transition and economic diversification in South Africa.

Bhorat et al. (2024) provide an extensive analysis of the socioeconomic impacts of the transition on the coal communities in Mpumalanga. The report highlights that the coal mining industry workforce in the province is relatively youthful, with 51% of those employed in the industry between the ages of 15 to 34, and that these youth will need specific supporting measures during the transition.

In addition, a recently published SALDRU working paper, Youth and the just transition – a profile of young NEET in Mpumalanga, highlights the dire situation of youth in Mpumalanga who are not in employment, education or training: over 638,000 youth aged 15-35 are already excluded from socio-economic participation. The majority of these NEET youth actively seek employment opportunities, with a substantial number being new entrants into the labour market who have been searching for work for extended periods. Ensuring sufficient opportunities for these young people in an era of green energy will be imperative to avoid further entrenching inequalities and to increase inclusion. Central to these efforts needs to be the facilitation of smoother transitions from education to employment, also, and perhaps especially, for young people living in income poor households. The paper therefore calls for a concentrated focus on initiatives that bring services closer to young people, and that provide skills development, ensuring that the talents and proficiencies of these young individuals are nurtured to meet the demands of the job market, especially amidst the transition within the energy sector (Mudiriza et al. 2024).

Indeed, the provision of skills is positioned as a critical enabler for the just transition of the energy sector. The skills implementation plan aims to contribute to building a well-coordinated, responsive, resourced, and effectively functioning skills ecosystem. This is to be achieved through 3 dimensions: reskilling and upskilling of adult workers; skills anticipatory systems and processes that support future labour force needs; and supporting foundational skills (The Presidency Republic of South Africa, JET IP 2023–2027, 2022). Thus, to support this work, a clearer understanding is needed of the transition’s impact on jobs, the skills required to transition into new opportunities, and the interventions needed, given the existing skills landscape.

With support from the French Development Agency (AFD), SALDRU’s Youth Explorer team, in partnership with the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR) and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), has recently embarked on a “green jobs” project that aims to support the deliverables of the skills portfolio. Part of the work leverages the existing Youth and Community Explorers as planning tools, while new research aims to develop the requisite measures to support JET planning, also at sub-national levels. The study explores the employment changes required for a sustainable and fair green transformation and asks whether “workers (will be able to) move into greener (i.e., more sustainable, less polluting, and emissions-lowering) employment?”.

Promising contributions from the team include the development of a framework to assess green jobs potential in South Africa (Davidson et al., forthcoming). This involves both a bottom-up and top-down approach to measuring green jobs. The top-down approach involves classifying green employment as all employment in industries or sectors identified as green. The bottom-up approach involves identifying green employment through determining green occupations and estimating employment in those occupations. Green occupations are identified through their involvement in green tasks and whether they will be affected by the greening of the economy (OECD, 2023; Valero et al., 2021).

In the top-down approach, CO2 emissions data for South Africa is extracted from global input-output tables. The work then explores a downscaling approach to sub-national estimates, to produce measures of pollution intensity – measured as share of CO2 emissions by industry – and emissions intensity – measured as CO2 in tonnes / worker. In the bottom-up approach, green jobs are identified following the Occupational Information Network (O*NET)’s Green Economy Program of the United States Department of Labour’s classification of green occupations within the O*NET system. The team then develops the data crosswalks needed to identify these occupations in the South African Department of Higher Education’s Organising Framework of Occupations (OFO) and then StatsSA’s South African Standard Classification of Occupations (SASCO). Quarterly Labour Force Survey data is then used to calculate the number/share of workers in each green affected occupation type and industry, in a particular geography (Davidson et al., forthcoming).

The use of additional datasets is also explored, with the HSRC team using the Spatial Tax Panel data to calculate and map these outcome measures at sub-provincial levels. A next phase of the project will examine the skills profiles of these jobs, and what would be required to transition workers from polluting jobs and industries to greener ones.



Bhorat, H., Kupeta, T., Martin, L. and Steenkamp, F. (2024). Just Transition and the Labour Market in South Africa. Measuring Individual and Household Coal Economy Dependence. Cape Town: Development and Policy Research Unit, University of Cape Town. (DPRU Research Report, March 2024)

Davidson, K., Jana, A., Ryan, J., and De Lannoy, A. (forthcoming 2024). A framework to assess green jobs potential in South Africa. Cape Town: Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town. (SALDRU working paper)

Mudiriza, D., De Lannoy, A., Anda, D. (2024). Youth and the just transition – a profile of young NEET in Mpumalanga. Cape Town: Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town. (SALDRU Working Paper Number 304)

OECD. (2023). Job Creation and Local Economic Development 2023: Bridging the Great Green Divide. Paris: OECD Publishing.

The Presidency. (2022). South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Investment plan (Jet IP) for the Initial Period 2023 – 2027. The Presidency, Republic of South Africa.

Valero, A., Li J., Muller, S., Riom, C., Nguyen-Tien, V. and Draca, M. (2021). Are green jobs good jobs? How lessons from the experience to date can inform labour market transitions of the future. London: Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and Political Science.

[1] Million Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent.