In the Ruhr area in western Germany steel melts just as cities do and traditions must. Transforming the industrial heart of Germany has been a decades-long experience. While hard coal mining will come to an end this year, other regions can profit from the lessons learned.
The end of hard coal mining in Germany this year does not come as a surprise. It has been carefully planned – driven economically, decided politically and accompanied socially. That is why it can be a good example of how a phase out might also work in other regions.
Delegates from three European countries – Bulgaria, Greece and Poland – came to the Ruhr area at the end of March to discuss just that.
The study trip was part of the EUKI project “Just Transition in Eastern and Southern Europe”, in which representatives of the political and civil arena like mayors, unionists and NGO members work on scalable, economically viable transition plans in those parts of their countries that still rely on coal.
They are aware that coal has no future. Not if the pledges made under the Paris agreement are taken seriously, not if the fight against the climate crisis is taken on fully.
In the Ruhr area, a just transition has already taken place. The “Pott”, as the locals call it, where one city turns into the next, is the industrial heart of Germany. At the height of hard coal mining during the early 1950s, mining accounted for more than a million jobs, about half a million people were directly employed at the mines, says Reiner Priggen, an expert on energy issues and former member of parliament in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
But then the economy shifted – and so the phase-out of hard coal mining began.
Multiple development programs were launched, coal mining companies were consolidated. Plus – and this was one of the very important steps on the pathway, says Alexandra Landsberg, who works for the economy ministry of the state – in the 1960s, universities were established in the region. Education and innovation were and are key elements in transforming the area.
For the employees, the coal mining company RAG (Ruhrkohle AG) managed a large amount of the transition with relocations and early retirement plans. Adaption and transition payments by the state and social security respectively further facilitated the shift. Today, only a few thousand employees remain in the mining sector. The industrial workforce in the Ruhr area has made way for jobs in the service sector. “We have more new jobs than we lost old ones”, Landsberg sums up.
In the city of Duisburg, the situation looks a bit different. Here, industrial jobs are still very dominant: Duisburg is home to the largest steel production in Europe. Every tenth resident of Duisburg is connected to it. But transformation is also urgently needed: Duisburg contributes 32 million tons of CO2 every year –incompatible with Germany’s reduction targets and the evolving economic realities of the 21st century. “There is no plan you can just copy and paste to turn the steel production city of Duisburg into a smart sustainable city”, says Dr. Thomas Griebe from the city of Duisburg. But there are ideas. And this summer, there will be a roadmap.
Early planning – one of the most important takeaways of the trip. The earlier all stakeholders know what is coming, the smoother a transition can be, the better it can be managed. And of course, these stakeholders need to be involved in this process. Moreover, when it comes to coal, the plan must entail a fixed end date. For the Bulgarian, Greek and Polish delegations, this was one of the key learnings. In 2007, the German government decided on the end of hard coal mining by 2018, leaving no more room for procrastination.
Developing a roadmap with clear dates is even more important when both time and resources are scarce. Which they are in other European regions phasing-out coal. A fifty-some years long phase-out is a luxury that no longer is applicable nor affordable. When to start a just transition, the answer is now. That holds true for other countries as well as for Germany, especially when it comes to lignite.
The Ruhr area has set an example for transition. Not everything can be copied, but a few ideas might be adapted. And the transition here did not erase traditions. Instead, some former industrial sites have been given a new life: Now tourists come to climb in old factories or dive in former gasometers. And the inner harbour of Duisburg now houses new businesses. Melting the old with the new and the necessary: a concept worth spreading.