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Mainstreaming justice in the renewable energy sector 

On Friday, the 16th of September 2022 the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ) hosted a climate justice symposium within the larger Rethinking Economics for Africa (REFA) Festival. The primary objective of the symposium was to bring together stakeholders in climate action, human rights, economic justice, and gender equity to unpack areas of convergence and contestation and provide an opportunity for participants to debate and engage with these key issues. 

The just energy transition dialogue has largely been focused on the rights of workers and marginalised communities in coal affected value chains. The missing element within this focus has been the issue of human rights and gender justice within the renewable energy sector itself. The symposium used this significant gap to centre the  nuance of the current just energy transition dialogue. To this end, the event aimed to create a discussion that ensures that the renewable energy sector does not replicate the same patterns of exploitation, oppression and repression that currently exist. The symposium aimed to surface human and gender rights violations in the renewable energy sector, discuss how current climate policy fails to account for any rights violations and devise ways to mainstream human and gender justice in the renewable sector. 

The symposium formed a part of the Climate Ambition to Accountability Project (CAAP) which is a partnership between the IEJ, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the South African Climate Action Network (SACAN) and is co-funded by the European Union. Over 100 people attended the event from various Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), Community Based Organisations (CBOs), youth groups and private corporations. 

The human rights dimension 

A human rights based approach to a just transition includes ensuring basic needs, equity, and justice in all processes. The first session of the symposium examined how human rights have been incorporated into climate action within South Africa, as well as the gaps between existing policy, implementation and accountability measures. While highlighting the role of workers in the coal value chain, this session approached the emerging renewable energy transition that considers the entire community perspective and both formal and informal work. This session intended to ensure that justice was incorporated into transition pathways and that a human rights based approach was central.

This session was made up of three panellists. The first speaker was Dr Boitumelo (Tumi) Malope who is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Research Chair in the Sociology of Land, Environment and Sustainable Development at Stellenbosch University. Dr Malope spoke to a portion of his PhD titled: “Renewable energy and alternative sustainable livelihoods in the Karoo”. His presentation set the scene of a current renewable energy project, a wind farm in Loeriesfontein in the Northern Cape. Dr Malope pointed out the various ways in which this current project does not adhere to the standards of decent work set out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and framed the ways, where possible, that key demands for worker-led engagements on the just energy transition could be met.  

Following this presentation was Dr Basani Baloyi, the Climate, Energy and Infrastructure Programme Lead at the IEJ. Dr Baloyi presented on the hidden ways in which the financing structures for renewable energy projects undermine a human rights based approach. To this extent she unravelled how Independent Power Producers (IPPs) often result in more debt for the state than Eskom  and that proposed price hikes in energy are largely due to subsidising the costs of IPPs. Dr Baloyi brought to light the challenges and tensions around public and private financing of renewables and debunked the myths surrounding both. A policy brief on this climate finance research will be available on the IEJ website soon. 

The final panellist in the first session was Dr Mauro Pucheta, an Argentine Employment Lawyer and a Lecturer in Law at the University of Kent.  He studies labour and employment law from a comparative and Global South perspective. Dr Pucheta  presented virtually, on the lessons that South Africa can learn from how Argentina and Chile have embedded just transitions into their legal orders to protect workers’ rights through their submission of the NDCs. He also laid out the foundations of the Inter-American System of Human Rights and how it may contribute to the protection of workers’ rights in the context of a just transition.

An intersectional approach

Women’s role in the coal value chain is often undermined. Women are underrepresented in the mainstream formal economy and typically perform informal work that is unpaid or underpaid or are in other low-skill, low-pay jobs. Unpaid care work detracts from women’s ability to enter into the paid economy which reinforces existing power dynamics, this creates an unjust transition as women are further exposed to rights violations.  As a result women often do not have access to land or secure tenure rights, have less access to credit and loans and are disproportionately represented in small enterprises. These factors serve to limit women’s freedoms. 

There is a need to bring attention to the informal and formal work that women do in mining affected communities and the gender-rights violations that have occurred in these contexts. The second session on  intersectional approaches to climate policy in South Africa shed light on how household-level social reproduction influences and supports the energy sector and how important these considerations are when discussing intersectionality within climate policy. The session discussed how to challenge inequity and the undermining of rights within communities hosting renewable energy projects. 

The first panellist in the session was Matilda Yende who was born and raised in Emalahleni and has worked in community development in the Nkangala district for more than 20 years.  Ms Yende gave a heartfelt account of the current violations of human rights in mining affected communities, emphasising the role of women in enabling and facilitating this transition. 

Ms Yende was followed by the Director of GenderCC Southern Africa Women for Climate Justice, Bertha Chiroro. Ms Chiroro gave an overview of her work with regards to developing gender- sensitive climate policy and explained how renewable energy projects can impact on agriculture, food systems and land when viewed through a gender lens.  She highlighted the ways that women are underrepresented in decision making and other factors such as land ownership and access to financing. Ms Chiroro ultimately concluded that a truly just transition must dismantle underlying structures that enable  the oppression of any group. 

Finally, Dr  Malope  highlighted the role of the household as the point where poverty is reproduced and pointed out the importance of addressing the household level issues  in order to uplift people and communities. This session emphasised the significance of bottom-up approaches and the importance of meaningful community consultation.

Workshop: Brainstorming how to Mainstream Gender & Human Rights in Climate Policy

The third and final session of the symposium was a workshop which brought about collaborative brainstorming on the issues introduced in the first two sessions. The workshop created an environment for intensive discussions on incorporating a human rights  and gender based approach in climate policy by engaging participants with scenarios. This session invoked  social dialogue as a core pillar of a human rights based approach and attempted to create a thought- provoking, role- playing session in which justice could consciously remain at the forefront of any endeavour. Participants produced a range of questions during the workshop regarding the ownership or projects, the level of consultation, the meaningfulness of consultation and the cost of electricity after renewable projects are established in an area. 

Conclusion 

Conversations on the just transition are complex and multi-faceted. This symposium brought to light the concerns of decent work and the inclusion of women in the emerging renewable energy sector. The symposium was successful in highlighting the patterns of similarity between the coal value chain and the renewables value chain. 

Women are still under-reppresented in the green economy, decent work conditions are not being met in newly established wind farms, the current structure of financing renewables plays a role in deepening energy poverty and there are no systems that currently uphold  the promise of increased jobs from an energy transition. 

For me, the symposium created an understanding that justice within a just transition is not inherent. There seems to be a false dichotomy in the contemporary climate dialogue in that we either transition into a low carbon economy which will automatically lead to better working conditions, more jobs and a cleaner environment or we remain within a carbon intensive pathway where human-rights violations continuously occur and environmental destruction remains the natural order of the world. This is not the case. 

The fight for justice does not end when wind and solar farms are erected but lies much deeper than that. It is the process of continuously  interrogating the capitalist systems that feed off inequality and human exploitation and inherently prioritises profits over people and environment. This process allows one to understand that a new energy source is not an easy pathway towards justice but rather, a transitioning point that could possibly be used as a means of challenging existing power structures and to advocate for the rights of the people. 

Yasirah Madhi is an Intern Researcher at the Institute of Economic Justice (IEJ). She writes this piece in her capacity as a member of Climate Ambition to Accountability Project — a joint project of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the South African Climate Action Network (SACAN) and the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ). The project’s objective is to realise the effective participation of South African organisations in climate change governance to ensure enhanced climate policy ambition, implementation and accountability. The project is co-funded by the European Union. This blog is the sole responsibility of the project team and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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