Greening the Economy: Building the Skills Base for a Sustainable Transition

After a great deal of re-thinking the growth trajectory of the South African economy, the government announced its intention to significantly green the developmental state, mainly through interventions in the energy sector. Yet the meaning of ‘greening’ must be established before any reasonably coherent discussion can be held on the subject, for it means different things to different people. Some, for example, tend to think of ‘greening’ as establishing ‘garden cities’, implementing nature conservation programmes, parks, water-bodies and the like.
Yet this is a limited view of ‘greening’. In its more comprehensive interpretation, ‘greening’ refers to achieving sustainability through decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts and resource exploitation, and broadening interventions to achieve the mutual sustainability of ecological, economic and social systems. A more subtle factor is also critical to understand about greening. It is that in an era of increasing and concentrated demand, resource scarcity is becoming a major limiting factor to growth. Therefore, developing the skills, innovation base and regulatory frameworks to be competitive in the next major global technological wave will determine the relative competitiveness of national economies as we migrate further into the new century.
Figuring out how to ensure growth (note – not just economic growth), while decoupling growth from environmental impacts and resource exploitation constitutes the ‘business’ of establishing policy, incentives and the institutional capacity to deliver on the implementation of green infrastructures, technology and innovation management, building awareness, improving skills and capabilities, and so forth. South Africa’s dependence on cheap, coal-based energy, has resulted in it falling behind it’s competitors in green and renewable energy sector developments. We have not built the skills or innovation base to cope with the ever increasing resource scarcity/price increase challenges that have assailed the 21st Century.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of greening will involve establishing the skills base that is necessary to sustain green developmental initiatives into the long term, and maintain competitiveness. This is where South Africa will need a comprehensive plan – one that builds skills and capabilities at the middle and implementation levels of our institutions. Government departments, industry sectors, higher institutions, etc. all need to seriously rethink their human competence development programmes if we are to achieve a successful transition to more sustainable infrastructures, technologies, production processes and everyday behaviours.
Another critical aspect will be engaging closely with trade unions and industry and business sectors on the skills development that is required to migrate the labour market from their existing practices to new modes of operation. This can only be achieved through close cooperation with these players, and fortunately, COSATU is playing an active role in envisaging the migration towards a newer, more innovative and competitive South African economy, as evidenced by their participation in the “million climate jobs” campaign, a civil society initiative that goes beyond the 300 000 target of green job creation set out in the New Economic Growth Path for South Africa.
Ensuring adequate levels of participation when visioning sector level transitions is a crucial requirement. Ensuring that broad levels of agreement are achieved is essential, as without effective cooperation within and between sectors, sustainability at the whole system scale will not be achieved, despite the best efforts of policy-makers and regulators. It requires a plural, inclusive approach towards governance, and a programme that can adapt to new local challenges, technological trajectory changes, unpredictable changes in the global economy and climate, and so forth. Benevolent ‘top-down’ dictator-style government actions may work in China, but they will  not work in a free society where the rights of individuals and groups are guaranteed and protected, and in the heavily privatised South African context where the industry and manufacturing sectors have significant levels of autonomy.
In short, skills development, stimulating creativity and innovation and broader programmes of participation will be required to see this transition through. Remembering that reduced resource dependence, enhanced competitiveness and improved socio-economic conditions are the goals of the transition will ensure that it does not get sidetracked or end up as a set of piecemeal solutions that operate within silos and do not contribute to sustainability at the whole systems scale.

Dr. Camaren Peter is appointed as an extraordinary senior lecturer in the School of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University. He has a rigorous background in the sciences and studied physics and astrophysics. More recently Camaren has been researching emerging theories governing transitions to sustainability at macro-scales and city scales, with a special emphasis on infrastructure transitions. 

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