A range of potential economic activities and the growth of new sectors beyond renewable energy can and should be explored as part of a drive to revive the Mpumalanga economy as it moves away from an overreliance on coal.
This emerged as a central theme during a Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) Development Dialogue webinar held yesterday. Another issue discussed was the need for more collaborative interaction between all stakeholders and especially the affected communities who should be considered partners, rather than beneficiaries.
The TIPS webinar – the seventh in a series of conversations focused on how to foster a just transition to a green economy in South Africa – focused on exploring possible sectoral options to diversify and rejuvenate the Mpumalanga economy as it weans itself a reliance on the coal value chain.
A range of speakers highlighted different possible opportunities, such as generating renewable energy-based electricity and manufacture renewable energy technologies, developing the agricultural value chains, using mine rehabilitation as a platform for socio-economic development and harnessing coal ash, a waste product of coal-fired power generation, to develop new economic activities.
In setting the scene for the discussion which unfolded, Nkosinathi Nkonyane, senior manager for economic policy & planning in the Department of Economic Development and Tourism of the Mpumalanga Province, provided an overview of the province’s Green Economy Plan. Nkonyane highlighted various opportunities for economic development and significant potential for job creation in agriculture, energy from biomass, sustainable tourism and the rehabilitation of mines.
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Coal and the energy transition
Mpumalanga green cluster agency on the way
Importantly, the Department’s plan is to be implemented through a cluster approach and an upcoming Mpumalanga Green Cluster Agency which will coordinate all green economy-related activities in the province. The intention of this cluster is to involve all stakeholders to co-create and co-implement solutions. Nkonyane emphasised that the cluster approach would seek to address structural limitations, tensions and trust deficit between the private and public sector, as well as between communities and other stakeholders.
His input generated significant debate around a range of issues, including but not limited to how the province defines ‘green economy’, the opportunities to expand the biomass potential beyond electricity generation and the role of civil society and labour.
Taking up the issue of utilising the rehabilitation of mines for economic activities, Louise Scholtz, senior programme manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), stressed the centrality of collaboration between all key stakeholders to achieve this.
She emphasised that engagement with communities should not be as beneficiaries but as parties who should be involved in co-designing projects and “community engagement requires continuous and consistant engagement to build trust.”
Fallout from closing Mpumalanga mines will be felt by whole country
As an example of the need to collaborate with all stakeholders, Scholtz shared the platform with Carla Hudson, programme manager for the Mine Water Coordinating Body and operation lead for Mpumalanga for The Impact Catalyst, who reinforced the need for collaboration, particularly for the mining industry.
Hudson highlighted the complexity of working with communities and stressed that the industry could not do this alone. She also stressed that, as mines were closed in Mpumalanga, a rippled effect would be felt in other provinces too. “If you talk about mining, we need to talk about the whole impact on economy,” said Hudson. As a final point, she reiterated the need for the mining industry to work with the government and others to ensure a just transition, not just an energy transition.
More broadly, Belinda Heichler (Kwikbulk) and Kelley Reynolds-Clausen (Eskom), respectively the president and vice-president of the South African Coal Ash Association, expanded on the wide array of opportunities associated with the use of coal ash. The development of zero-cement concrete and the use in mine backfilling was notably highlighted as the most promising opportunities in the short term.
Repurposing and changing focus of sectors requires partnerships and sharing information
TIPS economist Gillian Chigumira provided an extensive and in-depth look at the potential opportunities associated with the development of agricultural value chains in Mpumalanga. She highlighted that transitioning to agriculture is one avenue in the just transition away from coal.
The potential opportunities raised included unlocking jobs by replacing imports by repurposing land from mining to agriculture and stimulating opportunities for new entrepreneurs in agro-processing and manufacturing.
In terms of replacing imports with locally produced products, Chigumira gave examples of the potential to grow sugarcane, as well as develop the poultry, beef and maize value chains. She also spoke about the opportunities inherent in converting coal ash to be used in aquaculture.
Stanley Semelane, a Senior Researcher in Climate Services at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), highlighted the potential to develop renewable energy (for electricity production and manufacturing) in Mpumalanga.
He outlined various interventions needed to achieve a just energy transition ranging from the repurposing of decommissioned coal-fired power stations; establishing partnerships and social dialogue between government, local municipalities, enterprises and labour unions to guarantee a just energy transition and social protection plans that will secure salaries, pension rights, healthcare benefits, cash transfers for early retirement packages for coal sector employees.
Other interventions included, amongst others, the reskilling of the affected workforce and localising renewable energy technologies and implement procumbent models that drive and support local ownership and manufacturing.