Published on May 24, 2019

BAZ county still waiting for just transition

, Bence Kovacs (MTVSZ)

Many in Borsod still do not comprehend the opportunities associated with a just transition – a regional stakeholder forum taking place in the last days of April set out to change this.

Northern Hungary is listed as a coal region of interest for the Coal Regions in Transition Platform of the European Commission and last year it seemed like things were moving for the region.

In November 2018, the Hungarian government presented scenarios to phase out coal-based electricity possibly by 2025 during a Coal Platform meeting in Brussels. There were discussions about phasing out the Matra power plant. But then the process came to a halt. No exact date has been finally set for the coal phaseout in Hungary.

The only promising sign is in the draft version of the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) of Hungary, which includes a policy target to phase out solid fossils (lignite) from household heating and also phase out coal-based electricity generation (meaning part of the lignite-fired Matra PP). As the NECP scope is until 2030, we can estimate that lignite heating and coal-based power will be mostly eliminated by then.

Beside the two open pit mines in Borsod which serve the Matra power plant, there are half a dozen small, local lignite mines, selling their low-quality lignite only for household heating. Around 50,000-100,000 Hungarians are estimated to be living in lignite-heated houses, mainly in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén (BAZ) county. Mostly because of this, Borsod county faces serious air quality problems during the heating season, especially in the Sajo valley.

Furthermore, new lignite mines are planned to be opened in the region. It seems that regional decision-makers prefer to stick to coal nostalgia and backtrack on the transition started 20-25 years ago, instead of phasing out lignite and implementing a just transition.

In order to present the challenges in facing BAZ county and discuss alternatives, Friends of the Earth Hungary organized a stakeholders forum in Miskolc, BAZ, on 30 April 2019. Our local expert partners, Green Connection Association and Ecological Institute, were present. We presented our JT BAZ development study, other stakeholders – municipalities, institutions, NGOs – presented their own analyses and activities related to the just transition of BAZ County were discussed.

Iván Gyulai from the Ecological Institute for Sustainable Development presented the alternative JT study for BAZ, focusing on how to revive the rural areas of the region. The current BAZ practice – unsustainable, resource-intensive land use, jobs relying foremost on multinational companies’ fossil-based or car/products manufacturing factories with minimal local added value, exporting products and services – has lead to the current “industrial crisis zone” situation with high energy poverty and pollution, and the youth and higher educated leaving the region. As a solution to these challenges,Iván Gyulai proposed a model of local community economy: cooperative, community-based and community–led food, energy and public services. Local production and consumption could be supported by a revolving fund from the state.

The aim of HungAiry LIFE IP project is air quality improvement through the proper implementation of air quality plans in Miskolc and the Sajó Valley and in seven other regions of Hungary. The Municipality of Miskolc and the University of Miskolc are partners in the consortium. The main focus is the monitoring and reduction of PM pollution from household heating, traffic and waste burning by households. Two pilot projects were planned: a detailed air quality monitoring system and a campaign to avoid outdoor burning of compostable agricultural waste, by promoting local composting. An awareness-raising public campaign on efficient wood heating is a compulsory element in all regions – Miskolc plans to build a model heating stove to show how to burn wood cleanly and more efficiently in households.

Lajos Szalontai from the University of Miskolc’s Institute of Geography and Geoinformatics showed examples of how geoinformatics can support the effective use of local renewable resources. The solar cadastre produced as part of his PhD shows the solar energy potential of the roofs of a town in BAZ, which can be extended and used for planning various solar developments efficiently and economically – by BAZ municipalities, communities or companies. The current practice must be changed, Szalontai argued, as the high rate of support (up to 100% from EU Cohesion Funds with Hungarian co-finance) has resulted in a lot of new inefficient capacity of rooftop solar installations, orienting to less exposed directions or shaded by surrounding PV panels, buildings or trees.

Zsuzsanna F. Nagy shared Green Connection Association’s (as client) experiences of public participation in the permitting or EIA processes for mining and industrial activities, to enforce the right to a healthy environment. Based on the presented high environmental and social costs combined with low local economic benefits and job gains, she urged decision-makers to plan the phaseout of lignite mining in BAZ and to ban the selling of lignite as part of the “social heating fuel program” for municipalities. The Association is working on improving the Sajo valley air quality plan, to which recommendations can be made till 31 May 2019. For a more coordinated stakeholder cooperation on JT, she proposed a “Taskforce”. You can read about the small lignite mines here.

Csaba Vaszkó’s presentation was about the current and planned role of coal in BAZ County. (He also presented the Hungarian situation at the 3rd Working Group Meeting of the Platform on Coal Regions in Transition in November, 2018, his presentation is available here.) He demonstrated how the small lignite mines are a dead-end: their total lignite production capacity is only cca. 80,000 tonnes per year and they provide a total of 41 jobs, while the lignite is so low quality that the Matra power plant cannot use it – so locals burn it, leading to damages in the household boilers and polluting the air heavily.

Czaba Vaszko further argued why the “social-heating fuel program” is problematic. Where household utility price flat-rate of gas, electricity and district heating set by the government cannot be implemented because people use wood or coal/lignite for heating, the local municipality can apply for state support with distributing free firewood or lignite for poor families. The main problem with this program is the low quality and highly polluting fuel used: instead of dry firewood, it is freshly cut wet wood or, even worse, local low-quality lignite (because of high level of sulphur content) that’s distributed.

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 the air quality plan. Also, an awareness raising campaign is planned for the next heating season on the national and local levels, to make cleaner heating solutions available for the region.