Published on April 24, 2020

A Just Transition for the Western Balkans

, Ioana Ciuta (Bankwatch)

As a region that’s been through continuous hardship and conflict over the last 25 years, the Western Balkans is no stranger to the process of transition. Now the time has come for them to embark on yet another transition: moving their regions away from coal dependency.

Most commonly, international financial institutions assess the region’s progress against three types of transition: to market economy, to EU membership, and to high-income status. The completion of each positively impacts the others.

Five years ago, the World Bank noted that the first of these transitions was quite well underway in the Western Balkans, while the remaining two were deemed ‘challenging’. Yet, here we are, in 2020, and progress has been made on EU membership: accession negotiations continue with Montenegro and Serbia, and new negotiations have been finally formally opened for Albania and North Macedonia (yes, a transition to a new name, too).  A new type of transition has emerged, as well – the just transition.

Western Balkan countries, traditionally heavily reliant on coal for their electricity and heating generation, are now keeping a close eye on developments in the energy sector in the EU, both as parties to the Energy Community Treaty, as well as through their EU accession talks. And what do they see? Following the ambition for a decarbonised economy by 2050 and numerous pledges by countries to rid themselves of coal, EU member states have geared up to safeguard their coal mining regions, which will be most impacted by the coal phaseout (expected by 2040 at the latest).

It was in this context that the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition was established in 2017 by the European Commission, with the aim of promoting knowledge sharing and exchanges of experiences among EU coal regions. It represents a unique bottom-up approach to a just transition (NGOs persistently pushed for more transparency and inclusion of local communities from the start), enabling regions to identify and respond to their particular contexts and secure funding for the unprecedented social and economic challenges brought on by the transition to a zero-emission economy.

The Energy Community seized the opportunity to keep pace with the EU initiative. Already in December 2018, the Energy Community spoke about the need for replicating a similar Platform in its relevant countries of operation (countries in the Western Balkans and Ukraine).

The COP24 side event ‘Shifting to a low-carbon economy: Just transition pathways in the Energy Community and beyond’ in Katowice, Poland marked the commitment of the Energy Community Secretariat to involve all relevant stakeholders and secure financial means for this process in the coal-dependent regions of the Western Balkans and Ukraine.

In September 2019, to kick-start a viable economic and technological energy transformation, the Energy Community Secretariat organised several high profile regional events. The High-Level Policy Talk ‘Coal Regions in Transition and the Energy Community’, which brought together some 80 key stakeholders in Natolin, Warsaw, including ministers and deputy ministers, mayors, governors and other representatives of local governments from coal regions, industry, NGOs, social partners and academia from the Energy Community and the European Union, marked the commitment of the World Bank to bring its weight to the initiative.

At the same time, mayors of towns in coal dependent regions all over Europe were also mobilising to speak with a common, strong voice and demand from central governments and EU institutions that the means and processes for just transition are well in place. 41 mayors, two of them from the Western Balkan cities of Pljevlja (Montenegro) and Lukavac (Bosnia and Herzegovina), signed the Joint Declaration of Mayors on Just Transition. In this way, they committed themselves to continued action on just transition at the local level and to supporting each other in creating a sustainable future for the benefit of citizens.

The Western Balkan region itself is not homogenous. There are countries like Montenegro, which last year cancelled its plans to build a new coal fired power plant at Pljevlja and would have to close down its only existing plant by 2023 (unless it brings it in line with the latest emissions standards beforehand), or North Macedonia, which is eyeing up a coal phaseout by 2025. Governments in these countries appear to have understood that coal is becoming a liability, and that ambitious transition pathways need to be rolled out immediately.

Yet, other countries, particularly Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, persist in their stubborness to bring more and more coal capacities online – no less than six new coal power plants in BiH and five in Serbia – while also rubbing their hands at the opportunity to obtain potential financial support for their coal mining regions. They will face a huge disappointment, much like Poland or Romania did when they fantasized about having their (coal) cake and eating it too. This is not how just transition in coal regions works.

Countries in the region don’t even need visionary leaders for the just transition to kick start – the vision is there already, and it’s pretty clear. The Western Balkan countries need honest decision makers, who will no longer project the idea that coal is there forever just because there’s plenty of it in the ground, who will listen to the voices of their communities and learn from EU countries that have already started this new process of transition. The Energy Community Secretariat and several international donors are ready to back them up, and NGOs will be there to ensure this is a democratic and participatory process.