This week the ESSB research group of Global Social Challenges attended the 11th annual Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) Conference from the University of Zululand (UniZulu) in South Africa. This was held remotely for the first time and addressed the subject of Covid-19 – Challenges, Controversy, Commitment and Community Response.
Iain Todd – a principal researcher on the topic of the climate and energy transition - delivered a keynote speech on Managing a Just Energy Transition out of the Covid-19 crisis. This was in three parts: examining the pre-Covid-19 barriers to a just energy transition in South Africa; assessing handling of the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa; and describing the results of recent research on the impact of Covid-19 on a just energy transition in the Netherlands and the UK.
Pre-Covid-19 barriers to a just energy transition in South Africa
A just energy transition moves from fossil fuels to renewable energy in a fashion that benefits all sectors of society equally. The per-capita carbon emissions in South Africa are actually similar those in the Netherlands and the UK. This is because – while individual energy use there is much less - it is generated principally (over 75%) by high-carbon coal-fired power stations.
In his PhD research – conducted in 2018 – Todd established a taxonomy of 8 types of barrier acting against a just energy transition in South Africa. His interviews revealed that the most significant barrier was institutional, laying much of the resistance to change at the door of state electrical utility ESKOM. This organisation presides over an invidious history of rolling blackouts in the country. The second place was taken by the national government, for their lack of a long-term commitment to energy transition. And in the third place came “incumbent resistance” – the so-called Energy-Minerals Complex – where the interests of the mining industry and the mining unions combine to delay change. This interconnectedness of individual barriers was a key finding, and it can be applied to other transitional situations, such as the transition out of the Covid-19 crisis.
Handling of the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa
The effect of Covid-19 in South Africa has followed a very different trajectory to that in European countries. This is shown in the graph below, which illustrates the number of fatalities per 1 million of population for three countries, based on the data of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
This is a fascinating graph and will no doubt be studied for years to come. No single explanation for the differences was offered at the conference, although individual impacts were discussed: health effects; climate change; water governance; local government response; food security; education; and communication.
Todd reviewed 6 published articles by South African authors, variously supportive or critical of the South African government response to Covid-19. But his key point was that all the criticisms raised – the lack of transparency in modelling, shortages of PPE, pressure on food supply, the construction of field hospitals, delays in non-Covid-19 treatments, and increasing social inequality – have equally arisen in the UK media as criticisms of the UK government. This therefore reinforces a key theme of this conference – that Covid-19 blurs the boundary between the developed and the developing world.
The impact of Covid-19 on a just energy transition in the Netherlands and the UK
His presentation continued with a description of recent research on the impact of Covid-19 on the delivery of a just energy transition in the Netherlands and the UK. It set out 10 prioritised recommendations for action to ensure that this will happen. These recommendations are not repeated here but can be found on the companion news article.
In these two countries – using the same taxonomy of barriers to transition – the most significant was found to be the role of national governments both as investor and as the setter of long-term policy objectives. Investment by industry came in second position.