Green leapfrogging: The opportunity presented to developing nations

SA cannot afford to waste the climate crisis.
Environmental activist Greta Thunberg. Image: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The global climate change conversation has been front and centre for the last couple of months, culminating in the Cop26 summit taking place in Glasgow, Scotland in mid-November. After tense negotiations a new agreement was signed by world leaders. Post-summit commentary has ranged from optimism about the incremental steps made towards a net zero emissions world and the ‘just transition’ required, to concern about the slow pace of change.

“Even though we might have made some progress … we must remember that the climate crisis is about time,” said environmental activist Greta Thunberg in a BBC interview, criticising the slow pace.

Dr Roze Phillips, executive director of Value Creation at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) argues for an urgent shift in the conversation around climate change to finally achieve tangible results.

“I feel quite strongly that if we don’t lift the conversation beyond the infighting between developing nations and developed nations about who is to blame, and focus on the things that are important, we are not going to see progress,” says Phillips.

She argues that we should be concentrating on the opportunity presented to Africa, and South Africa, to use the impetus around the climate crisis and leapfrog to become leaders in the green economy.

“The continent needs jobs-based growth and the global focus on energy transition is an opportunity to build new skills and create employment, setting a trajectory for poorer nations to lead their own skills revolution while building the climate resilience that will be more and more essential for sustainable economic growth,” she says. “If they don’t, the consequences will be dire.”

Phillips says if we don’t move fast enough and act, developing nations will find themselves with not only stranded assets like coal mines and fossil fuel power stations, but with stranded skills. We will have people trained to do things that are no longer required.

“South Africa, as one of these nations, plagued with low economic growth and high unemployment as well, especially cannot afford to waste this climate crisis,” she says.

The future of work – green economy jobs and new skills

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) report: World Employment and Social Outlook 2018: Greening with jobs, the green economy could create around 24 million new jobs globally by 2030, if the right policies are put in place.

South Africa alone would need to access quite a number of those jobs to address an unemployment rate that is climbing to disturbingly high levels.

Data from Statistics South Africa shows that the unemployment rate in the country, according to the expanded definition, rose to 44.4% (7.83 million people) in the first quarter of 2021.

Phillips says South Africa, and the continent, needs skills that will be appropriate for not just the generation of renewable energy, but all the related industries around it: smart renewable agriculture, green infrastructure, green design and manufacturing.

These are all things that require a new set of skills. While digital fluency is of course essential given digital’s power to accelerate the utilisation of data and the development and implementation of climate change solutions using, among others machine learning and artificial intelligence, it is not enough, says Phillips.

“I also think that there are two other skillsets that we must not undervalue. The first is responsible leadership skills – key for public-private-partnerships and building the right climate finance and climate policy enablers for a green economy,” she says.

“For this, business and government leaders need an education around what to look out for and how to develop decision-making frameworks that truly measure and monitor the impact of sustainable and unsustainable programme choices.”

The second is the technical skills required to execute on many of the mitigation programmes aimed at reaching carbon neutrality and adaptation programmes aimed at building climate resilience, especially in the most harshly impacted places and communities, she says.

Jobs to build a green economy do not only occur at strategic and digital innovation level, she adds. “There are also technical skills needed, for example, to manufacture and manage wind turbines or electric vehicles.

“We will require labour to build and maintain these parts and infrastructure to the point that we do not only serve ourselves, but can also serve the rest of the world.”

Being able to focus on technical and manual labour skills for renewables will allow a large part of the population to be brought into the fold of the economy, says Phillips.

Ready, set, hop

Concern over the education system in South Africa and whether it is preparing the youth for employment for the future has been voiced in the past. Phillips says it is time to realise that we should stop relying solely on this system to provide the skilled workforce required.

“We can’t rely on one party. We need public, private and academic partnerships,” she says, adding that the country has a level of academic research and development prowess that could be harnessed to move from simply creating individual learning organisations, to establishing a society that continuously learns.

In addition, Phillips says that with private sector investment joining public sector financing, various social enterprises would become viable, led by young purpose-driven entrepreneurs.

“This will lift the water level on our skills base, our social development and our economic capability helping us achieve our sustainable development goals, as outlined by the UN Global Compact,” she says.

Phillips believes the current energy crisis in South Africa, with load shedding becoming a part of life and disrupting economic activity regularly, could provide the catalyst for the country to make that first leapfrog jump.

“Without electricity, renewable or not, our continent cannot develop and prosper. I do think that there is a will now from politicians and policy makers. Now that it is not just Eskom’s problem to resolve some of our energy challenges and we are widening the field for the private sector to become more involved, we are well-positioned to become a renewable energy supplier into the continent,” she says.

Phillips sees opportunity in other sectors like manufacturing and the financial sector as well but highlights that political risk will have to be addressed.

“If we can deal with our political risk and with our issues of corruption, we can attract more climate financing and impact investment, be a leader in the green revolution and lift our people out of poverty – but it is going to take responsible and responsive leadership,” she says.

Brought to you by the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).

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