Published on April 13, 2018

A future beyond coal in Europe – Interview with Ska Keller (Greens/EFA co-president)

This interview was done by The Greens/ European Free Alliance and first published on the blog of The Greens/EFA.

Photo via Flickr by Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

The Greens/EFA group have been running a fair transition campaign since the end of last year. The end of coal is a reality, mainly for economic reasons. Investing in this type of energy source does simply not make any sense anymore. The phasing out of coal is therefore already happening. For the Green political group, what is now fundamental is to ensure that the miners – the most concerned of all groups – are placed at the core of the transition. We are now questioning the Greens/EFA co-President on how a future beyond coal in Europe is possible, how we can get there and how we can make sure that the miners are consulted, but also empowered as much as possible.

Hello Ska. There seems to be a lot of discussion about the coal industry right now, including at EU level. Could you tell us more about this?

Coal is indeed a hot topic at the European level. Since the signing of the Paris agreement, there has been a growing discussion on how we can urgently limit global warming to below safe levels. All of a sudden it has become apparent to a wider audience that the burning of coal for heat and electricity has a hugely damaging effect.

I am glad to see that more and more EU states are turning away from coal: Austria, Denmark, France, Italy and even the United Kingdom (formerly a huge coal producer) have all decided to end the use of coal by 2025. Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden will follow and completely phase out coal by 2030. In Germany meanwhile, had the Greens managed to form the so-called Jamaica coalition they would have pushed for a complete phase-out of coal.

The launch of the “Powering Past Coal Alliance” by more than 20 countries including UK, Canada and France during the last round of UN international climate negotiations in Bonn at end of last year has also had a positive impact. The dynamic has started. We can see that the European Commission has understood the importance of supporting coal regions in addressing the serious ecological and economic issues they are facing, as well as the importance of planning for their transition away from this energy source.  When we learnt about the Commission’s plans to launch a platform for coal regions in transition, we were immediately supportive and joined as members.

Is this a good move? Will the EU Commission help coal-mining regions in Europe?

Cooperation between coal regions is needed more than ever, so having a platform for a shared discussion is an important step. Unfortunately, however, this platform is not only discussing the future of coal regions and how to prepare for a future after coal. Because of efforts by the coal lobby and some pro-coal Member States, the coal platform now also includes a workshop on ‘green coal’, which is an attempt by the industry to keep coal alive with some very dubious and expensive techniques such as the underground storing of CO2. It is becoming clear that the EU is not really consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement and fasten Europe’s transformation of its energy production.

What is the Greens’ position on all of this? What are you doing to help?

Protecting the environment and stopping climate change have always been crucial issues for the Greens, and phasing out coal is a necessary part of this. I come from a coal mining area in Lusatia, where many villages have been destroyed by mining and the environmental damage is huge. So I am very aware of how coal destroys not only the environment and our climate but also local communities and our rural landscapes. After the reunification of Germany a lot of mines were closed. But this happened without a plan or a vision to help coal miners move to other forms of work and how to provide the region with a future. Needless to say, this example of a transition away from coal has had a huge impact on how the phase-out of coal is perceived in Lusatia. The opportunity to implement a fair transition was missed, and such mistakes should not be repeated again.

The challenges in these regions are huge: most of the inhabitants of these regions fear for their jobs, their houses and the future of their families. This is especially the case in regions like Lusatia, where whole communities depend on mining, where there are almost no alternatives to mining for most of the population, and where miners fear for their children’s futures. By quickening the transition away from coal before its phase-out occurs we can help bring about a sustainable future for these regions. We need to work on such a future as of now. Very good examples of fair transitions do exist. We need to work hand in hand with the people from the coal regions; they must be placed at the centre of such a transition.

With our recent study “Phasing-out of coal, reinventing European regions” on how the European Union can support coal regions in their effort to phase-out coal, we learned that continuous, targeted support is needed in every coal region. Our research on the coal regions of Lusatia (Germany), Silesia (Poland), Aragon (Spain) and Western-Macedonia (Greece) showed that every region is different and that each of them needs tailor-made support in their transition. Crucially, we also concluded that this support needs to be fair.

It is well known that the Greens fight for the transition away from coal, but what exactly do you mean by a fair transition?

First and foremost the transition away from coal must not be a top-down process, and should be planned for together with the coal regions, with the affected communities and the people living where the change is taking place. A fair transition means that the coal region is supported in developing a vision and a concrete plan for the future for its inhabitants. We should not aim to merely create interim jobs. Working with partners on the ground, we need to develop a local economy that offers sustainable, well-paid jobs. For us Greens, the local community must be placed at the very heart of the transition process. These regions should not be forced to abandon their heritage, a heritage that is also ours. Conscious of this heritage, we should support these communities in building a new future. The coal mining regions are full of incredibly hard-working people. This workforce is clearly an asset for these regions and for the countries as a whole – and they must be given a chance to develop a sustainable strategy for their future.

The future beyond coal is a reality. We must not minimise the fears of the people concerned, but we should also not underestimate the huge potential that a shift away from coal can represent for these regions. Take the incredibly positive example of what has been done in Loos-en-Gohelle in the North of France for example, where all inhabitants children, older generations and the miners themselves came together to draw up their own plan for their future. Put into action many years ago, the town has been totally transformed, offering many new opportunities for its inhabitants. What a success story! It shows that with collective organisation and the right political support the phase out of coal can be a success, and importantly it can be fair. 

What are your next steps?

The Greens organised a conference on the transition away from coal on Wednesday 11th April, where our study was presented. I will now embark on a tour of some important mining regions in Europe, starting with Lusatia in Germany and the Lubuskie Voivodeship in Poland, and ending in Kozani in Greece. My Spanish colleague Florent Marcellesi will present this study in Aragon. As part of each visit, we will present our study on how the EU can support coal regions in their transition and discuss with the local community on how together we can together build attractive projects for and in these regions. Finally, during COP24 in Poland our group Greens/EFA in the European Parliament will present our study to a wider audience as part of our activities in Katowice.

Coal is an important topic that we need to pay attention to at all levels, including at the European one.

This year, the new round of climate negotiations will take place in Katowice, the epicentre of the mining industry in Poland. The current government in Poland has a very unambitious vision of what the future of this region will hold. Instead of planning for a future with sustainable jobs, it prefers to maintain the status quo. Politicians should be bolder! We are in contact with a huge network of people on the ground and we are well aware of the strengths and skills of the people in this region. We see that a growing number of people have already started to organise themselves in a in a bid to transform their regions for the better, by combating air pollution and trying to create new job opportunities. A lot of people are ready to be creative in this endeavour, and they really need to be supported. In my view, Europe has an important role to play here. The Greens will do everything they can to ensure that the transition is as fair as possible.

More information

Ø  Find more about the conference ‘a future beyond coal’ on this page together with all the presentations of the speakers and our study

Ø  Click here to watch the short campaign video of the greens on the fair transition in English and Polish, and with French, Greek, Spanish and German subtitles.