Including Diverse Insights to Increase the Justice of the Just Energy Transition - Collective Intelligence and Climate Change

South Africa

December 18, 2023

Women fill wheelbarrows for a load of free coal provided by a nearby mine in eMalahleni, South Africa

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images


South Africa is the 14th highest emitter of Green House Gas globally, and the 7th largest producer of coal globally. Fossil fuels make up 92% of the energy mix, and the country’s energy system relies heavily on coal with over 80% of electricity generated by coal-fired power stations. In addition, the country has experienced rolling blackouts since 2018, severely impacting the economy, businesses, and individuals. Renewable energy has increased over the past years, though still only makes up 7.3% of the total national energy mix. Through the revised Nationally Determined Contribution, South Africa has pledged to a limit of 350 – 420 MtCO2e by 2030, though these targets will only be attainable through “receiving appropriate financial support from developed nations and—even more importantly—on the ability of the South African political economy to address both existing vested interests in fossil fuels and the requirements for a Just Transition” (COBENEFITS, 2022).

The Just Energy Transition (JET) refers to the process of transitioning the country's energy system towards sustainable and clean energy sources, while ensuring that the social and economic impacts on communities, workers, and other stakeholders are taken into consideration. The Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) have developed a Just Transition Framework for South Africa, where the following definition is put forward: 


“A just transition aims to achieve a quality life for all South Africans, in the context of increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate, fostering climate resilience, and reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in line with best available science. 

A just transition contributes to the goals of decent work for all, social inclusion, and the eradication of poverty. A just transition puts people at the center of decision making, especially those most impacted, the poor, women, people with disabilities, and the youth—empowering and equipping them for new opportunities of the future. 

A just transition builds the resilience of the economy and people through affordable, decentralized, diversely owned renewable energy systems; conservation of natural resources; equitable access of water resources; an environment that is not harmful to one’s health and well-being; and sustainable, equitable, inclusive land use for all, especially for the most vulnerable.” 


The coal mining sector employs approximately 120 000 people according to 2019 data. Shifting away from coal will result in the loss of jobs and livelihoods for people employed directly and indirectly in the coal value chain. While the development of the renewable energy sector will create jobs, these will require different skills, and will also only be realized over time. In addition, alternative livelihoods are likely to pay less than mining. For example, a World Bank study found the closest skills-match to mining would be bricklaying, which provides a significantly lower salary. 

The JET also brings a complex set of spatial issues. Mpumalanga province makes up 68% of coal mining employment, and 80% of coal-related activities are concentrated within 100 square kilometers across four municipalities in this province. Mpumalanga, like the rest of the country, faces extremely high levels of unemployment and poverty, with limited alternative livelihood options for miners. 

Essentially, the JET will lead to fundamental shifts in South Africa’s economy and employment trends. Jobs will be in different sectors, places, and at different times (see this webinar by the PCC to unpack this further). Government and other key actors are working tirelessly to address this complexity through a myriad of research and development interventions, though one area of focus that has not been fully prioritized is surfacing the views and voices of the coal miners and coal mining communities themselves. This includes the work that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been championing locally and globally, responding to various needs towards implementing a just energy transition.


Collective Intelligence Design Studio 

The UNDP Accelerator Lab in South Africa was selected as one of 15 labs (of 91 globally) to take part in the Collective Intelligence Design Studio, ran in partnership with NESTA.  This year-long programme was aimed at supporting labs to develop Collective Intelligence interventions that could contribute to climate action and accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Collective Intelligence is essentially a methodology focused on mobilizing a wide range of information from a diverse group of people, often through the use of technology, to surface insights that lead to a deeper understanding of how to address social challenges. As per NESTA’s Playbook, “it’s based on the theory that groups of diverse people are collectively smarter than any single individual on their own. The premise is that intelligence is distributed. Different people hold different pieces of information and different perspectives that, when combined, create a more complete picture of a problem and how to solve it.”

In selecting our area of intervention, we were driven by the importance of enhancing the justice of the Just Energy Transition, along with the limited community engagement that has taken place thus far. As such, at the heart of our Collective Intelligence design were two key value propositions: 

  • By surfacing their views, perceptions and attitudes on the JET, we will help coal miners and coal mining communities to feel heard and included in decision making and designing their future; and

  • By enabling coal miners and coal mining communities to express their views on JET, we will create intelligence that can contribute to decision makers regarding enhancing the justice of the Just Transition.


The Pilot 

To reach coal miners and coal mining community members, we collaborated with iSpani Insights. iSpani is a youth-founded and youth-led organization which has developed a strong youth network across the country. Through a mobile application, youth in communities collect data and earn rewards for each submission of information. Working with these micro-data entrepreneurs, ‘Youth Agents’, meant that we could overcome barriers such as access and language, and also allowed us to work with community members themselves in data collection. 

We selected Zamdela and the surrounding areas in Sasolburg as our pilot site (due to the community's proximity to the Lethabo Power Plant and the Seriti New Vaal opencast coal mine) and designed a survey that would elicit insights on the views, perceptions and attitudes of coal mining communities regarding the JET. We reached 208 respondents, of which 63,8% were women and 59,2% were youth. Though this pilot sample size is far from representative, these insights will inform the development of further research to unpack the key issues surfaced.


Here are a few of the key insights gained through the results:

56.7% of respondents had not heard about the JET, and 69% of respondents heard about the JET for the first time from the Youth Agents themselves. This indicates low levels of awareness despite the JET being discussed across numerous platforms, including mainstream media. 

Though there were low levels of awareness of JET, only 11.5% of respondents had not heard about climate change, possibly indicating that awareness campaigns and media over the last few years have had an impact. 

Pointing to the complexity of this issues, 81.7% of respondents indicated that they were worried about climate change, while later 72% expressed that coal is not a problem for the country. 

Only 33.2% of respondents said that they would move from the area should the mines shut down. When asked if they had to move to find work, 30.5% indicated that they would move to Mpumalanga (a coal mining area). 

When asked which other sector they would want to work in, the top listed sector was ‘Electric Vehicles’ with 18.3% of respondents choosing this sector. Though electric vehicles are a key part of the JET Investment Plan, this industry does not exist as yet in South Africa and will take many years to build. The sector which was second in preferences was ‘Agriculture’ with 16.3% of respondents choosing this. Agriculture is seen as a key sector that needs to transition through JET and will likely not generate sufficient job opportunities to absorb workers from the coal value chain. 

When asked what would make it difficult to find a new job, the top three listed reasons were level of experience (33.2%), age (23.1%), and level of education (8.7%). When asked what skills they would like to learn, the top skill noted by respondents was business skills. 

In closing, 74% of respondents were interested in receiving more information about the JET. To surface observational and qualitative data, the Youth Agents took part in a focus group. Below are some of the key insights they shared:


Job Loss Concerns

The community members expressed deep concerns that the JET might result in job losses, particularly among the youth. Many saw the closure of mines as an inevitable consequence of the energy transition, leading to significant job insecurities. They feared that this transition might not offer enough alternative employment opportunities, leaving them unemployed and economically vulnerable.

One agent reported, "The community is worried about their livelihoods, especially the young people. They believe the JET will take away their chances of getting decent jobs in the future, leaving them with limited prospects."


Health Concerns:

On the other hand, some community members were optimistic about the JET, believing it could address health issues caused by coal mining activities. They linked the prevalence of health problems, such as respiratory issues caused by fly ash, to the proximity of coal mines and power plants.

An agent shared, "Some community members were happy about the JET as they think it might improve their health. They associate the mines with respiratory problems and believe renewables can be a healthier alternative."


Relationship with Mining Companies:

Amid the concerns about job losses, community members acknowledged the significant contributions of mines to the local community. Mines played a crucial role in infrastructure development, building roads, schools, clinics, and other facilities that community members benefited from and utilized. However, there were also complaints that mines tended to hire people from outside the community and awarded contracts to external companies, resulting in a sense of exclusion and frustration among locals.

One agent noted, "While people appreciate the economic benefits the mines bring, they are dissatisfied with the hiring practices that often favour outsiders over locals. This adds to the tensions around the JET's potential impact on jobs."


Views on Renewable Energy:

The majority of community members living in informal settlements lacked access to electricity and relied on burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, for heating and energy. As a result, their awareness of renewable energy and the JET was limited.

Another agent reported, "The lack of electricity in informal settlements makes it harder for people to understand the concept of renewable energy and the JET. They rely on coal because it's their primary energy source."


Views on Government:

Community members expressed dissatisfaction with the government's role in the JET and felt underserved and unprotected from the potential adverse effects of the transition. They believed that the local community's complacency was due to the expectation that the mines would intervene in matters concerning their welfare.

"Community members feel let down by the government, which they perceive as not actively engaging and protecting them from the impacts of the JET," an agent shared.


Community Engagement and Awareness Strategies:

Agents stressed the importance of continuous community engagement and the involvement of key stakeholders such as councillors and community leaders in the JET discussion. They suggested utilizing community assets like halls, sports centers, schools, clinics, and churches to reach a wider audience and enhance awareness.


Emotive Questions:

Community members were most engaged with the questions related to where they would move if mines were to close, as well as their plans for learning new skills and starting businesses. These questions gave them the opportunity to express their attachment to their community and the challenges they might face if forced to seek alternative livelihoods. The reality is that majority of people won't move because they have established their lives within those communities.

An agent shared, "The questions about moving and developing new skills resonated with the community, as they gave them a chance to voice their concerns and hopes for the future."


Uncomfortable Questions:

Community members felt uncomfortable with questions about their original hometown, suspecting that it might be a way to determine whether they were from the local community or outsiders. This stems from their discontent with the preference given to non-locals in employment and contracts by mines.


Community Solutions and Role in Climate Change:

Agents suggested that the survey could have included questions about community members' ideas and willingness to contribute to climate change mitigation through the JET. Understanding their perspectives on potential solutions and their role in the process could have provided valuable insights for a more inclusive transition.

"Adding questions about how the community can actively participate in climate change solutions could have empowered them and fostered a sense of ownership over the JET," an agent recommended.


Lessons Learned

  1. When conducting Collective Intelligence in communities, including community members themselves in the data collection has many positive outcomes. This allows for:

  • Overcoming barriers such as access and language;

  • The creation of localized data collection strategies (for example using informal community gatherings);

  • Increasing the agency of community members as active participants in the knowledge creation; 

  • The generation of observational data that is culturally interpreted.

    In addition, working with community members allows them to become points of information for the community. The Youth Agents were able to explain to community members what the JET was, along with a number of other concepts, thus raising awareness through the process of the research itself. 

  1. A lot more needs to be done to raise awareness of the JET in communities, and this should be led by government. Only once awareness has been raised can community members engage on alternative livelihood options and relocation plans. 

  2. The dependency of coal mining communities on the mining companies is extremely complex. This needs to be factored in when discussing JET with these communities, as well as in government planning for alternatives after mine closures and the design of post-mining economies. 

  3. The key perception of JET is that it will lead to job losses. Clear plans for alternative livelihoods need to be shared with community members. This should be done in collaboration with the mining companies themselves as the current employers. 


This pilot study will be scaled in 2024 with a target to reach 11 communities in Mpumalanga and Limpopo, as well as refining our questionnaire based on the inputs from Youth Agents and findings from the data. 


We would like to thank iSpani our implementing partner, and each and every Youth Agent that took part in this pilot and shared their insights with us. We would also like to thank the global AccLab team and NESTA who made this study possible. 

Please see the global UNDP report UNTAPPED to read case studies from additional countries in the design studio. Please contact should you like access to the pilot data set or further information on implementing collective intelligence methodologies. 


*This piece is intended to provide an overview of one of UNDP’s projects, but it should be noted that the blog simplifies what is a highly complex and contested development issue. We acknowledge these complexities, as well as the severe and differentiated impact the JET will have, and we are committed to continue surfacing and implementing solutions to these challenges in our programming.