Working on just transition brings all actors who believe in fair regional redevelopment to the same table: unions, industry, public administration, governments, civil society and others sharing this goal. They should be working together to find what is best for their regions and communities, from creating good quality jobs to identifying sustainable alternatives.
While a phaseout of coal in Europe is inevitable within the next decade, some central and eastern European governments are resisting the trend. Their argument is that coal is key to energy security and economic prosperity, and that workers and communities in coal-reliant regions would suffer greatly if phaseouts are implemented.
Yet a closer look at these coal-dependent regions tells a different story. In many cases, local authorities and citizens in the communities themselves have already started building post-coal futures.
People are out and about planning for the future, in some cases demonstrating an extraordinary level of cooperation between citizens and local authorities.
The mobilisation in these regions shows that a just transition of coal regions in central and eastern Europe is possible, following in the footsteps of other regions around the world where citizens, local and central authorities, trade unions and civil society are working together to build alternative futures.
In central and eastern Europe too, a just transition has already started.
The Action Plan is a true victory for local communities. In 2018, the Slovak government was ready to circumvent the will of locals and choose projects proposed by big companies, but the locals and civil society pushed back, forcing the central government to include their contributions in planning for the future of the region.
The Platform has been welcomed as a useful initiative – coal regions need all the support they can get to transform. Yet there are serious concerns that, so far, the Platform has favoured the coal industry in some countries, that local actors have too little impact on the project selection process, and that ‘clean coal’ was favoured. These concerns must be addressed with urgency, otherwise the Platform’s goal will be undermined by its practices.
Just transition in the region
At the November 2018 meeting of the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition, the Hungarian government presented scenarios to phase out coal-based electricity possibly by 2025 and there were discussions about phasing out the lignite blocks of the Matra power plant. Since then the process has slowed down, and no exact date has been yet set for the coal phaseout in Hungary.
The government is now (2019) focusing on the energy strategy and on the draft National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) of Hungary. The latter includes a policy to phase out solid fossils (lignite) from household heating and also to phase out coal-based electricity generation (meaning part of the lignite-fired Matra Power Plant, except co-generation). As the NECP scope is until 2030, we can estimate that lignite heating and coal-based power will be mostly eliminated by then. With the new pledge plan of Slovakia to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2023, NGOs urge the Hungarian government for a similarly clear phaseout plan and measures.
But most Borsod county decisionmakers still do not see the opportunities of just transition and still have false faith in clean coal and small lignite mines selling fuel for households. Thus on 30 April 2019, NSC-FoE Hungary organized a regional stakeholder forum to discuss the challenges and opportunities, including presenting their regional just transition study. In conclusion to the forum, local and national NGOs committed to joint advocacy work for the phaseout of lignite mines and coal-based heating and for the review of air quality plans. Also, an awareness raising campaign is planned for the 2019/2020 heating season on the national and local levels, to make cleaner heating solutions available for the region.
A team from the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition spent one day in Jiu Valley in April 2019. In the morning, they visited the two projects presented in this publication. Architect Mihai Danciu and former miner Cătălin Cenușă showed the officials how the former mines are central to the town’s cultural heritage, why it’s worth saving them and explained that Platform support is key to achieve that. From Petrila they went to Straja, seeing a panorama of Jiu Valley from the mountains surrounding it. Dana Bates used this opportunity to show how supporting his idea for mountain biking trails could make tourism sustainable year-long in the area.
A meeting was also organized between the Platform officials and representatives of local public authorities, civil society and trade unions, in an attempt to better understand the particular needs of the region as well as its potential. Here, an idea took shape, of a collaboration between the six mayors from Jiu Valley, as them working together could make accessing EU funds easier. As a result, the mayors from the Valley signed a memorandum of understanding at the July Coal Platform meeting in Brussels, in order to advance this collaboration and learn from good practices from across Europe.
The biggest potential of the just transition process in Czechia is in the lately established Czech coal commission. The commission, as an advisory board, is supposed to involve experts from labour unions, NGOs, politicians and industry. However, the role and structure of the commission as well as further details are still unknown.
As for Re:Start, this Czech program continues its activity on the national level as well as on the European level. The Re:Start’s national executive team plays a leading role in the Czech “country team” within the EU Platform for Coal Regions in Transition.
In autumn 2018, Kamila Bláhová retained her seat as the mayor of Litvinov. She is one of few mayors from the Czech coal regions who actively speak against coal mining.
The lack of the social aspect of the Czech energy transformation is mentioned by the European Commission in its Czech NECP recommendations. Czechia should integrate just and fair transition features better, notably by providing more details on the social aspects. Also, the Commission points out that there should be a link to the Re:Start program in the Czech NECP, which could lead to a shift in Re:Start’s course to advocate an anti-coal, coal phaseout strategy.
Wielkopolska joined the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition in April 2019, presenting its first batch of green project proposals and a wider ambition to develop a cluster of hydrogen-related industries to replace the lignite economy in the longer term. However, in the meantime, actions on the ground accelerated, with ZEPAK, the owner of the lignite mines and power plants, announcing its first mass layoff. For now, there are no emergency plans on how to help the miners who will lose their jobs, and what makes matters worse is that lignite miners, unlike the hard coal miners working for state-owned mines in Silesia, are not entitled to any special social security measures in the event of redundancies, such as one-off payments or transfer to early retirement. The Polish Green Network (PGN) and a number of local organisations have called on the prime minister to urgently develop such a plan and make sure workers are not left to fend for themselves. And finally, in a first case of this kind in the EU, the foundation Rozwój Tak-Odkrywki Nie is taking Poland to court for failing to abide by the Framework Water Directive in permitting coal mines. Poland routinely grants extraction permits despite documented negative impacts on water resources, citing overriding public interest.
In Silesia, the standoff between the local community and the mining company continues as neither side is ready to cede ground. The recently unearthed plans to start a new mining operation in the city of Rybnik have prompted a similar mobilisation of local people. Meanwhile, Poland has stopped the EU from committing to net zero emissions in 2050, but has subsequently said it would back climate neutrality if provided with generous financial assistance to support a just transition. Logically, this should mean that Poland will have to start planning its transition away from coal at last, possibly modify its own draft plans and strategies that currently foresee keeping the current share of coal in the mix for at least another decade, and, perhaps, rethink its insistence on pushing through new mining projects.
In July 2019 Slovak government approved the ‘Transformation Action Plan of coal region Upper Nitra´. It has already been approved by the regional parliament and by local communities in 5 public hearings organized in region.
The document is finally largely based on inputs from local communities in Upper Nitra, who have been organising in working groups to prepare scenarios for the transformation of the region since 2018.
The Action Plan confirms the rejection of a new mine at the Novaky coal complex, which private company Hornonitrianske bane Prievidza (HBP) was intent on opening. Locals’ inputs have resulted in a plan that aims for „developing economic activities in symbiosis with a clean environment”. The Action Plan finally places the public interest in protecting the environment above the private interest in extracting coal reserves.
In June 2019 Slovakia announced that it supports the EU 2050 carbon neutrality goal and said it would end electricity production from coal burning by 2023.
In Upper Nitra, capacity building is CEPA – Friends of the Earth Slovakia’s absolute priority – the capacity of local governments, companies and locals, so that their efforts contribute to transforming this vision on paper into a satisfying reality.
Slovakia could really become an example of good practice model for central and eastern Europe, showing how other coal regions in neighboring countries could move from coal with respect for local people’s voices.
Bulgaria states that the country has a horizon of 60 years of coal reserves at the current rate of use and that the reliance on coal is unlikely to change until 2030. If the country doesn’t commit to a coal phaseout in the foreseeable future, the coal regions will continue their agony and will hit a dead end without time to reform and adapt. The decarbonisation path of stubborn member states will have to be a lot more steep after 2030 and will require almost immediate shutdown of all coal power plants. The Bulgarian government has to take some responsibility and establish a dialogue for a coal phaseout by the early 2030s.
Bulgaria seems to be omnivorous when it comes to new fossil fuel infrastructure. Gas pipelines, new oil and gas exploration in the Black Sea, LNG terminals, subsidies for households to switch to gas – all of that in a Europe that has oversupply of gas. The only meaningful ones are probably the gas interconnectors with the neighbours. The rest will put Bulgaria and the region in a deep lock-in position with gas. All these projects will likely mean an increase in the national GhG emissions and have to undergo a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). Za Zemiata – FoE Bulgaria hopes that the European Commission’ check on the NECP will cover the aspects of a proper SEA. The Bulgarian stretch of Turkish stream is not even mentioned in the plan and just recently the Bulgarian government decided to spend 3 bn BGN (1.5 bln EUR) for the rapid construction of the Bulgarian part of the project that may never happen.