While Global North –South collaborations are essential to enabling transitions in response to climate change, they are also characterised by significant asymmetries and inequalities including income differentials, resource mobilisation capacities, infrastructure networks, and formal knowledge production systems. How can we structure them so that they address – not exacerbate – inequality between or within countries?
Centring Justice in Africa’s Net-Zero Transitions & Reflections on the Potential of Green Hydrogen: A discussion document
As net-zero transitions commence and accelerate across countries and regions in the Global South, it is necessary for those Global North actors driving investments and various kinds of assistance to ensure that externally directed interventions are aligned to the principles, processes and outcome of a just transition. What this means substantively will vary, and must be appropriately and contextually defined in each country. Countries have significantly different starting points for transition, with vulnerable countries and populations in the Global South, and particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, disproportionately exposed to both climate change and transition risk.i
There are significant asymmetries and inequalities that are at play in North-South collaborations.ii These include, but are not limited to existing income levels, resource mobilisation capacity, infrastructure networks, and formal knowledge production systems. While these collaborations are essential for the global transition in response to climate change, they must be carefully structured to ensure that they address – and do not exacerbate – inequality between or within countries.
Within current global just transition developments, there are two significant trends that require a considered and ongoing evaluation through, taking historical, current and future inequality, and justice, into account. The first is Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs) to mobilise investment for just transitions in middle and low-income countries; and the second the development of green hydrogen projects as a component of transition implementation.
2. Centring justice in Just Energy Transition Partnerships
South Africa, is a precedent-setting case of JETP investment plan development, having forged an agreement at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) between the national government and the governments of France, Germany, United Kingdom (UK), United States (US), and the European Union (EU) (forming the International Partners Group [IPG]).iii The initial investment plan covers the period from 2023 to 2027. As of April 2023 no funds have flowed under the auspices of this plan. While the existence of the plan is certainly a significant achievement, it remains to be seen, how, in practice, the JETP investments are truly additional (not double counting or displacing other investments), different (directing funds to climate and transition opportunities where it is needed) and effective (achieving stated aims, including catalysing additional resource allocation). The South African example is the first among a cluster of developing JETPs. The country’s experience is already generating lessons for other regions.
Ensuring that this and other JETPs are indeed supportive of just and sustainable outcomes is a significant feat. Among the critical considerations for these partnerships is the following:
- Climate and energy partnerships risk prioritising transition aspects of policy, planning and implementation over justice aspects. This is because it is often easier to isolate technical and even some economic shifts over more nebulous social impacts that are more difficult to understand and measure, for which mitigation options and other interventions have no clear investment case, and no payback in financial terms.
- One area that is often neglected in the operationalisation of these kinds of ‘catalytic’ interventions is the building of real local adaptive capacity and institutional capability to ensure the long-term durability of change. Short-term success may dwindle into long-term regression without sufficient embedded capacity and capability.
- Institutional capacity and capability are also necessary to sustainable accountability between actors, including external actors and local impacted communities. For projects funded and implemented from outside the country, to support accountability and effective governance, the gaps must be addressed in resourcing, capacitating and building capability within government institutions at and between local, and provincial (or equivalent), and National levels. The relational capabilities among all the actors in the transition ecosystem must be developed.
- Not only outputs but also processes need funding. This connects the imperative for procedural justice, which demands conditions that are the contrary to arbitrariness. Just processes cannot be obscure, capricious and uncertain. That means that JETPs – in planning and implementation – must engender real transparency, meaningful participation, and robust accountability. The rationale, funding, implementation and monitoring and evaluation for JETP interventions should approached in this way. This is no small feat in the context of a transition, which, by definition, engenders great uncertainty and change.
- Participatory planning means removing barriers to participation, particularly for those already vulnerable marginalised persons and communities. This aspect of This kind of procedural justice has a strategic value during times of change. It levels the playing field for good ideas, for insight, and for innovation and adaptation across scales.
- Procedural makes the achievement of distributive justice possible. It is not possible to fairly allocate that which is not seen or not visible and intelligible. It bears repeating that all investments must be tested at commencement, during implementation and after completion for their distributional impacts, particularly whether they worsen inequality or vulnerability. The distribution of benefits and burdens in the transition interacts with existing deep structural inequality and differentiated power and agency within and between countries.
3. Understanding the implications of transition-aligned industrial opportunities like green hydrogen
A wide range of stakeholders have started to interrogate the emergence of the global green hydrogen industry and related value chains. Increasingly, it is being positioned as a critical part of the global decarbonisation puzzle. At the same time, stakeholders are asking if this role is compatible with just transitions, globally, and in middle and low-income hydrogen producer countries in the Global South, including those, like South Africa and Namibia, in Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically.iv
There are two aspects to this question. On the one hand, it is about whether hydrogen production, transport and use really enables an overall (and sector-specific) global programme of decarbonisation, as well as decarbonisation in countries like South Africa; and on the other hand, it is about further impacts, whether broader (non-greenhouse gas) ecological, social and economic risks are reasonable and appropriately mitigated, as well as benefits of various kinds being fairly distributed within and between countries or regions. It is clear that the same considerations for JETPs also apply specifically in the case of green hydrogen investments.
In nascent value chains, like for green hydrogen, any evaluation of potential impacts must be wide, systematic and precautionary in its approach. Additionally, it is easier, at least initially, to specify and preclude those conditions that would render green hydrogen incompatible with either or both decarbonisation and justice planning and implementation within the transition.
Regarding decarbonisation, it must be considered that, in line with global climate policy, green hydrogen is not a silver bullet for achieving international net zero ambitions. It is important to not lose sight of the need for profound structural changes to the global economy. These changes must result in both a fairer distribution of consumption allocations between and within countries, and, overall, achieving the Paris climate goal, to “Reduce consumption of goods and services” within ecological limits. Addressing inequality in the structure of green hydrogen investments, is essential to the achievement of hydrogen projects and net zero goals that are compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals.
To support decarbonisation, green hydrogen must be appropriately used, alongside solutions related to circular economy, behaviour change and reconfigured global supply chains. Green hydrogen should be seen as a complement to demand management, particularly in the global north but also in pockets in the South. More obviously, to contribute to decarbonisation, of course hydrogen production must meet “green” requirements for renewable energy use and additionality as stated in several newly developed taxonomical specifications. It must also be generated in a way that its other ecological impacts do not have adverse climate consequences (for example, by altering land-use with environmentally deleterious consequences). If these conditions can be ensured, then it is possible that green hydrogen could play an important role, in hard-to-abate sectors, transport and electricity sectors.
Assuming that hydrogen can, with careful planning and transparent and accountable governance, help with global and local decarbonisation efforts, we are compelled to consider the development of the global and local green hydrogen economies through a just transition lens, allowing for the systematic consideration of social, ecological and economic impacts, negative, positive, and ambivalent. This approach demands that we account for how green hydrogen impacts different stakeholders differently all along the value chain. In conditions of such high levels of uncertainty, we must also consider the distribution of risk along this value chain. This also demands that we take into account existing distributions of power, and how, between countries, within countries, particularly considering locally affected communities along the value chain, political and economic power interacts with risk to render some stakeholders extremely vulnerable to negative impacts and various externalities. These same conditions will also tend to enable other actors to capture and extract value, and to reinforce their relative power and ensure future value capture.
Additionally, false narratives and red herring debates must be actively deconstructed so that real risks and opportunities can be addressed. For example, it is not at all clear how foreign investment in green hydrogen has any direct positive impact on local energy security or energy access in countries like South Africa. There may be indirect benefits if costs and taxes levied on projects are directed toward public infrastructure development. However, this is not hydrogen’s big contribution. Indeed, the risk of green hydrogen projects being advantaged over renewable energy generation for local power supply and use must be actively mitigated, with respect to issues such as site allocation, access to the grid, and supply chain challenges in the context of global interruptions like COVID19.
Green hydrogen may well hold significant industrial promise for South Africa and other countries. However, the focus should be on augmenting its core value additions. Potential benefits, including repurposing of infrastructure such as gas pipelines, must be presented with a full view of the associated costs for the upgrading and maintenance of this infrastructure into the future. It is imperative that planning for the transition maintains as complete a view as possible of short, medium and long term to avoid unintended consequences and undesirable opportunity costs.
4. Additional reflection
South Africa and other countries in the Global South must forge a pathway that responds to current poverty, inequality and unemployment, and manages widespread vulnerability of people, ecosystems, and local industries and value chains. The extent of mitigation, the pace, and manner in which options are deployed, must ensure that no-one is left behind and that the country is set onto a more equitable, sustainable, resilient and globally competitive pathway.
Supporting the mechanisms that make it possible, tolerable and manageable to transition in South Africa and other African countries and countries across the Global South is not a matter of charity. South Africa is an open system. Sub-Saharan Africa is an open system. Local climate and transition impacts will not remain local forever. There is no lasting transition anywhere without a just transition everywhere.
i Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Synthesis Report of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. 2021.
ii Hermanus L, Cirolia LR. The Cable is Coming [Internet]. Cape Town; 2022. Available from: https://www.africancentreforcities.net/report-the-cable-is-coming/
iii The Presidency. South Africa’s Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JET IP) for the initial period 2023-2027. 2022.
iv Hermanus L, Dane A. Understanding green hydrogen in South Africa through a just transition lens. Cape Town;