The path followed by Europe since the Paris Agreement to go ‘fossil free’ has made coal communities worry about their future. Torn between economic aspirations and climatic necessities, they have been destabilised by these international climate ambitions and Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement. The most recent report by IDDRI examining past coal mining declines in five European countries and the “Indigenous coal in the EU energy transition” report presented by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) last year will feed into the EU Commission’s current work on the issue.
There is no doubt that the coal era will have to end. Coal regions and industries all around Europe will have to deal with new realities. The “movement for a just transition” tries to provide the affected stakeholders with the right change of perspective. Prepared for the most part by the trade union movement, its aim is to shape local public policies that create a context for fair incomes, new jobs and a decent life for all those affected by climate mitigation and adaptation measures. In certain regions, coal communities, NGOs, local authorities and large corporations are getting together to establish a common goal and strategy for transitioning towards new opportunities. Just this week, EURACTIV organised a roundtable debate on the topic in the Czech Republic. In its online report, the magazine recalls that “In 2015, almost 8,000 people worked in the lignite industry in the Czech Republic, according to Euracoal, with 9,500 in Poland, 10,600 in Romania, 11,700 in Bulgaria and almost 15,500 in Germany.”
Despite this high number, the German Parliament is discussing and planning to phase out coal mining in the medium term to successfully implement its Energy transition. Despite Germany’s determination to attain its climate goals, it is finding it hard to arrive at a strong political decision to phase out lignite.
A region where the transition seems to have been successful, though, is the region of Lausitz, in eastern Germany. Where miners once operated shovels and bulldozers you’ll now find lakes: the former coal mines have been turned into a tourist site. On the same lines, the city of Essen in the western part of Germany, has transformed one of the biggest industrial coal sites of the country into a cultural site gathering museums on industrial heritage and design. Furthermore, since 2001, the Zollverein Coal Mine is a UNESCO heritage site and is attracting increasing numbers of tourists. These examples underline that there can be life after coal and that new businesses can replace the old ones and give a new identity to the community.
Some other good practices can be found amongst Energy Cities’ members. The city of Heerlen in the Netherlands, for example, has transformed its abandoned coal field into a low-temperature resource. The low-temperature district heating of this so-called “Minewater 2.0 project” has been up and running since October 2008.
Without doubt, the transition to a fossil fuel free future is necessary. Long-term political support and solid financial instruments are key to making the ‘just transition’ a success and creating change that is acceptable to local people. The currently available EU instruments, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme primarily, are not sufficient. Neither is the dialogue with the coal communities…
In the Romanian mining region of Groj, the battle for fair treatment of the miners is much less linked to an ambitious climate policy. In the village of Targu Jiu, in the south-sest of Romania, the problem is not about creating new opportunities after coal. On the contrary, the national authorities have planned to demolish the village in order to expand the coal region. The region has 10 lignite mines and two coal-fired power plants. A first meeting of the stakeholders in April 2017 in the village was a first step to creating understanding on both sides and finding solutions collectively.
Looking across the Atlantic, miners seem to be desperate for stable policies able to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Under Obama’s presidency, support programmes had been implemented aimed at helping unemployed coal miners to find new jobs and develop new skills linked to the energy transition. Now, President Trump is keeping the coal communities in the dark about their future. While Mr Trump has publically stated that the miners will be taken care of as well as their communities, his administration is planning to shut down 7 out of the 12 federal programmes aimed at revitalising coal struggling communities. Will they one day see the light at the end of the tunnel?
As for the old continent, the work started by the European Economic and Social Committee is crucial. If we want to achieve our energy transition, the EU’s policy should also be addressed at those whose livelihood has, until now, relied entirely on fossil fuels. Life after coal needs support mechanisms to allow the people affected to reinvent themselves in a sustainable and renewable environment. The task is not easy, but the benefits for the regions – if we manage to make the transition a success – are economically, socially and environmentally promising.
Copyright photo: Russell Lee – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
June 29, 2017