Energy transition debates and actions tend to focus on emission reduction. That makes sense because fossil fuels account for two-thirds of global emissions. Fossil fuel production should have been dropping 6% every year since 2020 and stay at the same rate until 2030 to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement. That’s not happening. Instead, production has gone up 2% annually, putting emission reduction targets consistent with 1.5 degrees of warming off reach in the short and long terms. Phasing out fossil fuels in favour of cleaner energy forms thus remains the most significant and urgent action needed to avoid irreversible climate change and its impacts on human and natural systems.
Energy Poverty and Just Transition in Africa:
Africa’s energy sector barely accounts for 2% to 4% of global emissions. Its historical contributions to global warming are even less significant. As things stand, the continent has the least emissions reduction responsibility. Even then, deep emission reductions in African will make little difference to global emission reduction targets. Instead, the continent must grapple with unrivalled levels of energy poverty that stalls growth and primarily affect the poor segments of its population. To put this in perspective, Sub-Saharan Africa has four times more people without electricity than anywhere else. Eight hundred million or so people in the region lack access to modern energy. This acute energy poverty has far-reaching consequences for critical development and environmental outcomes. As such, energy transition, and by extension just energy transition, will look different in Africa from other parts of the world. Beyond emission reductions, it must deliver sustainable energy access capable of lifting millions of Africans out of poverty and disease burdens.
Just Transition, Climate Justice and Just Development:
What is just transition and what does it look like in Africa? In its early conceptualisation, North American unionists understood just transition as a framework for protecting jobs while delivering climate outcomes associated with the decarbonization of specific productive sectors. This is still the dominant understanding. But new inquiry is concerned about the likely adverse effects of the decarbonization of multiple sectors on equality, human rights, access to resources, and other developmental challenges. Just transition has, therefore, come to be understood as planning and acting to minimise the risks of and spread the benefits of transitioning to a low carbon future, both for people and the planet. As these risks and benefits are localised, just transition is case-specific in practice.
In Africa, particularly, there is an increasing need for a broader conversation that includes questions around development rights, as nations forgo certain productive activities to align with global decarbonisation goals. These emerging dimensions include risks of asset stranding as nations and other actors phase out fossil fuels and some extractive sectors (upon which most developing economies rely). Analysts in some fields have coined the expression “just development” to embrace this burgeoning scope. Just transition questions have also arisen among environmental and climate justice advocates. These questions have expanded just transition debates to integrate questions about whose duties and responsibilities are to minimise the risk and maximise the benefits of a transition to a resilient, low carbon future. The later debate is rooted in the disproportional nature of the current and past emissions at the heart of the climate crisis.
Given the broadening scope, the overarching goal of just transition advocacy is to secure just outcomes from various policy and practical responses to the world’s pressing problems. This requires conceptualising “just system transitions” across multiple sectors. The field thus widens further to include addressing existing structural issues as part of the transition package. Expanding the topic creates room for even more considerations. Gender, for example. This way of thinking is helpful because, in part, a low carbon future will require both plans and actions to phase out dirty energy and system-wide structural, institutional and governance changes to accommodate the peculiarities of a new socially and environmentally harmonious society.
Energy Democracy: Power to the People:
Like just transition, energy democracy isn’t one thing and won’t look the same everywhere. It encompasses a range of climate justice and just transition subthemes, the most notable of which is citizen ownership and control expressed in practice through decentralisation and public participation. Despite its buzz status, policymakers must still resolve several conceptual questions to give it practical utility. For example, “is it mainly a tool for political change, or does it represent a particular, coherent vision of future society? What kind of restructuring of current energy systems does it imply? And what form(s) of democracy does it promote?” (Veelen & Horst, 2018)
Equally worth examining is the realisation that energy democracy alone does not necessarily resolve the justice and equity issues that blight modern energy systems (Stein, 2018). Indeed, there is no broad consensus on the type and nature of energy policy reform or the underlying principles of such reform needed to create energy systems that qualify as democratic (Welton, 2018). The risk is significant that a successful energy transition might still carry along some of the structural and systemic dysfunctions responsible for current levels of energy poverty. At the end of it all, we may end up with energy from renewable sources but whose governance system remain as opaque and controversial as is the case with must energy systems (whether fusils or clean), in the continent. Whether working as part of the civil society or other platforms available to them, citizens must work to prevent this from happening and take the opportunity of transition
to address broad developmental challenges. Africa needs to be at the forefront of these reflections and finding solutions that align with its special needs and circumstances.

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