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To understand why South Africa is the continent’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, look to the vast coal-fired power stations that dot the plains of Mpumalanga province.

Mpumalanga has eight coal plants within a 100 kilometer radius and recent research showed it was the world’s second-biggest sulphur dioxide emissions hot spot. Environmentalists have documented thousands of cases of pollution-related illness.

But as Africa’s No. 2 economy seeks to break its near-total coal dependence, climate experts say Mpumalanga could serve as a test case for developing nations seeking to cut emissions while also benefiting their people — a so-called just transition.

“Mpumalanga province is one of the most famous regions in the climate world right now,” said Gaylor Montmasson-Clair, a senior economist at Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS), a Pretoria-based economic think tank.

“South Africa is one of the first Global South countries to go through this transition … if they get it right, it shows the world it can be done,” Montmasson-Clair said.

With global pressure for action mounting ahead of U.N. climate talks in November, a delegation from rich nations was due in South Africa this week to discuss ways to help the government move away from coal, the most polluting fossil fuel.

Swiftly ending the use of coal is seen as crucial to meeting an international goal to cap global warming at well below 2 degrees Celsius, to avoid worsening climate threats such as harsher floods, wildfires and droughts.

Africa’s most industrialized nation uses coal for more than 80% of its power, making it one of the world’s top 20 carbon dioxide emitters — but even so it regularly rolls out power cuts to protect the struggling national grid from collapse.

Tackled together

Pivoting to cleaner energy such as wind and solar could help keep the lights on and fight global heating while also tackling unemployment in coal areas like Mpumalanga, where nearly half of residents are jobless, experts said.

But policies to create jobs and help miners retrain are seen as vital to the success of countries’ efforts to switch away from coal.

“We appreciate climate change is a problem, but people are dying of hunger today. We don’t want to condemn more to a death sentence through job loss,” said Sizwe Pamla, a spokesperson for South Africa’s COSATU trade union federation.

“We understand that change is going to happen, it is necessary, but it has to be managed change. A just transition will take time, policies and proper planning,” Pamla said.

A decade ago, South Africa launched a procurement program for renewable energy produced by independent power producers (IPPs), which aimed to boost communities near the projects.

Despite some management failings, climate researchers said the initiative could serve as a blueprint for a broader “just transition.”

Just or unjust?

Last month, South Africa’s Cabinet adopted a more ambitious emissions reduction target for 2030 to align its carbon-cutting commitments more closely with the Paris Agreement.

To reach its new target, the government would have to revise its current energy plan and remove some new coal and gas projects, experts said.

Eskom — the state energy provider — has pitched a $10 billion bid to global lenders to advance efforts to shut down the majority of its coal-fired plants by 2050 and embrace clean energy.

“It won’t be easy, but Eskom has made a 180-degree shift in the right direction,” said Montmasson-Clair.

Pressure to find new cleaner power sources is also being applied by the country’s biggest banks, some of which have backed away from funding new coal-fired plants and mines.

But despite excitement among climate experts about coal’s potential demise, government plans to add other fossil fuels such as natural gas in the years ahead to cushion the transition also need a rethink, environmentalists say.

“No one is disputing the fact that in the short term there is a role for gas to play. The problem is once you open the door, are you able to close it? It’s a risk,” said Jesse Burton, a senior associate at E3G, a European climate change think tank.

Scientists say the use of all fossil fuels should be halted quickly to prevent runaway climate change.

In Mpumalanga, activist Given Zulu from the Khuthala Environmental Care Group, also an informal miner working to rehabilitate mines, said phasing out coal will work if it is done with proper community consultation.

“The people dependent on coal for jobs are also those whose health and safety have been damaged by the coal industry … they are the ones who need to be prioritized as the country turns toward green energy,” said Zulu.

Learning lessons from previous climate initiatives — in South Africa and beyond — will be vital in tracing a path that cuts emissions and benefits local economies, said Montmasson-Clair.

“The question is not whether South Africa will transition or not transition — this is part of a global trend driven by larger dynamics. The question is whether it will be just or unjust.”

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