‘Just’ energy transitions need more transparency, less gas

Sisilia Nurmala Dewi

Sisilia Nurmala Dewi

Soaring energy prices in Europe brought on by Russia’s war in Ukraine have given a renewed thrust to fossil fuel projects in Asia and Africa, particularly those involving gas.

Leaders attending the G20 summit that started in Indonesia today and the ongoing COP27 climate summit in Egypt are expected to push for increased investment in oil and gas exploration.

A sign of this was the failure of the G20 climate and environment ministers to produce an agreed-upon communique on climate action after they met in August. COP27 President-Designate Sameh Shoukry, who attended the meeting, warned that leaders may backslide on their climate commitments by putting the blame on geopolitical realities and the energy crisis.

Ironically, one of the mechanisms that could be used to facilitate an unwanted pivot to gas is the Just Transition Energy Partnership (JETP), an initiative with lofty aims.

Indeed, the JETP is a mechanism under which rich nations are supposed to support emerging economies in moving to clean energy while being fair and transparent with affected local communities. South Africa was a recipient of Western funding under the JETP last year, and Indonesia could be announced as a beneficiary when it hosts the G20.

However, the details of the JETP deal with South Africa remain hidden, raising concerns over the opacity surrounding it. Civil society groups and human rights and climate activists are emphasising the need for transparency and justice in both the procedural aspects and substance of such agreements.

In September, South African civil society groups – led by the Life After Coal campaign and the Fair Finance Coalition of South Africa – wrote to the country’s Presidential Climate Finance Task Team (PCFTT) for the second time, demanding that their participation and input be taken into consideration.

It is also unclear whether assistance to South Africa will come in the form of grants or loans, their total value, and the conditions under which they will be awarded. How will the clean energy produced through this initiative be distributed? What role will the private sector play in its distribution? These are questions that the South African people – and the rest of the world – don’t have answers to.

Similar concerns are being raised about Indonesia’s deal at a time when the two main funder countries, Japan and the United States, are leading negotiations.

Civil society organisations are calling for increased transparency around those talks and prioritisation of the interests of workers, young people and affected communities. A move away from fossil fuels will inevitably constitute a labour transition for many communities that rely on coal jobs to sustain their livelihoods. Any such shift that does not include required training, assistance and compensation for these workers to find new jobs cannot be considered a just one.

Recently, civil society organisations in Indonesia published a list of demands on the JETP under negotiation. These included the need for Indonesia’s deal to replace the country’s extractive and centralised energy production and distribution system with a more democratic one reliant on renewables. The list also emphasised the need for justice, transparency, and accountability mechanisms to be enshrined in the agreement; and for human rights, local customs and cultural traditions to be honoured and respected during the transition. So far, there has been no response.

This lack of transparency and communication with civil society undercuts the very idea of a “just” energy transition. It also raises questions about the intent of such initiatives, especially at a time when alternatives to Russian fossil fuels are in high demand.

At present, Indonesia is still planning to build at least 13.5 GW of coal-fired power plants, and gas development is also taking up an increased share of proposed so-called solutions to current energy and geopolitical volatility.

While the specificities of Indonesia’s JETP deal remain to be seen, the government has recently announced plans to increase gas production. In Bali, a local movement is opposing the construction of an LNG gas terminal on a socially and environmentally significant mangrove forest region.

The track records of Indonesia, South Africa and the G7 countries don’t inspire confidence either: None of them is on schedule to meet their Paris climate change agreement goals.

We must preemptively ensure that mechanisms like the JETP, which could potentially be used as a template for climate investment in several countries, are not pushed through without careful consideration and democratic participation.

In Africa, an argument being used for increasing fossil fuel production is that the continent should be allowed to economically benefit from its resources in the way that rich countries have historically. However, the current dash for gas in Africa, often driven by European investments, represents a new form of energy colonialism that would lock Africa into decades of harmful consequences at the front line of climate change.

It is true that 600 million Africans have no access to electricity and nearly 1 billion people do not have access to clean cooking. The International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook report in 2022 showed that solving this requires $25bn per year from now to 2030. Building a single liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal a year would suck up that money.

The fact is that fossil gas will not result in expanded energy access for South Africa or Indonesia. Even if fossil fuel investment went ahead today, the infrastructure would not be ready for several years and would bind Africa to decades more of unnecessary carbon emissions. Furthermore, it is likely that European nations making investments would seek to use this gas to secure their own energy needs as a priority, meaning that the African market would not see any change to the current energy security and accessibility landscape.

At a time when the impacts of climate change intensify around the world, countries and organisations are looking at the JETP deals for South Africa and Indonesia as potential models to implement elsewhere. It is vital that an undesirable precedent is not set. Instead, justice, transparency and real solutions must form the central tenets of current and future deals of this kind.

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