Published on March 31, 2022

How do we get people interested in just transition in central and eastern Europe? Part I: Public hearings in Poland

Getting people to participate in public consultations in our part of the world (central and eastern Europe (CEE)) is not easy, and tackling the issue comprehensively requires a lot of background information. And plenty of effort. And perseverance!   

Right off the bat, it has to be noted that various sociological studies show that people in the CEE region have demonstrated persistently lower levels of trust towards political systems and institutions compared to people in western Europe. This can easily be linked to citizens’ perceptions of these countries as having low transparency and high corruption levels.  

This is important in the context of participatory practices, as in order for people to want to devote their time and energy to such meetings, they need to believe that they actually have some influence over what is going to happen. If there is little trust in public institutions and politicians, this also means that it is harder for people to believe their voice matters within consultation processes. Especially since it has frequently been proven that their concerns are well founded.  

There are many situations that we as activists have observed which further undermine the level of trust people have in consultation processes. These range from NGOs spending weeks preparing comments on a document as part of formal consultations and then having none of their proposals taken into account to being given just a few days (sometimes over a weekend) to comment on a difficult couple-of-hundred-page document.  

To put this into context, however, representatives of NGOs do not give up easily and are often among the most resilient and driven participants of such consultations, while the majority of society has neither the free time nor the willingness to battle such obstacles. This is one reason why public consultations in our part of the world are the domain of the few, with the typical citizen rarely getting involved.   

For this reason, the EU’s requirement that governments put the partnership principle into practice within the just transition process is so important for central and eastern Europe. It is forcing various authorities to take into account voices that were previously frequently marginalised or ignored. And while progress remains slow, it is happening.  

One of most interesting recent attempts at increasing participation in the just transition process is the public hearing held for Eastern Wielkopolska, Poland that took place at the beginning of 2022, organized by Polish Green Network, the National Federation of Polish NGOs, and the Agency of Regional Development in Konin.        

Public hearing in Eastern Wielkopolska 

On 27 January 2022, nearly one hundred people met online to share their impressions of what was happening in Eastern Wielkopolska and what they expected the changes taking place there would bring as the region transitions away from the lignite coal that has been the basis of its economy for the last 70 years. It was the first time that the form of a public or citizens’ hearing has been applied in a coal region in Poland planning to phase out its mines and related power plants. 

One of the main goals of the meeting was to ensure that it was open to anyone and that anyone interested could join in and speak their mind. The entire meeting lasted over four hours, and each registered participant could voice their opinion. While this was not the first public consultation in the region, it was definitely the first with such a wide range of participants.    

The broad participation of mining and power plant trade union representatives, the strong voice of local business circles, opinions shared by a large variety of NGOs and the presence of representatives of many medium and small municipalities from the entire Eastern Wielkopolska area undoubtedly enriched the meeting. Through such experimental forms, the people who represent different groups of the region’s inhabitants are able to have much more say, strengthening the voice of those who have so far often been on the margins of the largely technical discussions about the future of the region.   

‘Let us not expect everyone to be in agreement’   

We are afraid of the changes that are taking place’ – this one sentence summarises what was said by representatives of the local mining and energy plant trade unions and the administration of some municipalities in the region. The Eastern Wielkopolska just transition plan envisions that by 2030 the power plants and mines that have been the basis of the regional economy and social structure for the last 70 years will be closed down. Through the organisation of a wide variety of conferences, meetings, workshops and media presence, local people have become aware that there will be European funds available (from the Just Transition Fund and others) to enable the transition process. But still, for many, these are only distant and very vague promises.  

The participants voiced their lack of certainty that financial support would arrive in time and provide solutions to their most pressing problems. In particular, for trade unionists from the local power plants and mines, where job cuts are already taking place, they voiced concerns about whether they would be provided with new jobs. Their hope has been invested primarily in employee projects developed by the unions in cooperation with the local energy company to provide opportunities for new qualifications and jobs after the plants and mines are closed. As Dariusz Zbierski, one of the miner unionists, stated, ‘It is necessary to have an economic transformation into a different economy, with new technologies, with zero-emission production, with a low carbon footprint, etc. But in order to achieve this, workplaces must be ensured’.     

The unions also expressed their disappointment that the region has not been included in the social agreement (reached between the Polish government and the unions representing the hard coal regions), which would have provided an appropriate social benefit package to mine workers retiring early or affected by layoffs. They wish to be treated on equal footing with miners from Upper Silesia (where the agreements include mining leave, processing leave, a one-time severance payment, and a comprehensive allocation system).   

Further concerns were voiced by municipalities located next to mining areas (such as Kleczew in Eastern Wielkopolska), which are afraid of problems linked to the reclamation of areas degraded by mining activities. They wonder how they will be able to ensure appropriate repurposing of these areas so that they can be used for agricultural activities or as investment areas in the future. Others voiced their concerns about the need to ensure the improvement of the water situation in the region, especially in the context of disappearing lakes, rivers and underground water resources. Although this topic has been included in the strategic plans for Eastern Wielkopolska, including those prepared by Wody Polskie (Polish Waters State Holding), there is a great concern that the available funds will not cover the needs.   

During the meeting, opinions about the need to increase the economic attractiveness of the region and to bring in investments were repeatedly voiced, emphasising the need to support small and medium-sized enterprises. It was pointed out that the region has large amounts of such businesses, and their future development is key for the region. In turn, many of the contributions referred to the need for further development of renewable energy sources, deep renovation of buildings and energy efficiency and sufficiency, which were also repeatedly suggested as possible areas for economic development in the region and increasing employment. The increased interest in the installation of photovoltaic panels and heat pumps over the last two years was noted as a positive sign of the times.   

During this first public hearing, a wide variety of other issues were also raised. How can we get young people to stay in the region and how can we attract new residents? How can we attract immigrants who can make up for the rising depopulation experienced in the region over the last decade? How can we realistically ensure a healthy and ecologically-friendly environment during the upcoming changes? Will we act fast enough to provide support for those people who are already losing their jobs? And how do we achieve all this quickly, efficiently, and wisely? As Magda Bartecka from Polish Green Network, said, ‘We have to state openly that just transition is a difficult process. There is a need to link many visions – sometimes even those that are seemingly contradictory. Let us not expect everyone to be in agreement, but it is all about knocking on all of the doors to make sure that the interests of the region, the interests of its inhabitants, are taken into account’. 

Just the beginning of the road 

Although a public hearing does not provide all the answers, it does paint more of a picture of what these various groups expect from the transition and what needs to be done to ensure their worst fears do not come true. Even though there were voices stating that it was high time to stop talking and start acting, it can easily be observed that we are only at the beginning of the road, one more of us need to take part in to make sure that the changes introduced actually bring us to a brighter future.   

If we want people to participate in such processes, we need to ensure not only that their voices are heard, but also that what they say is really taken into account when decisions are made. This particular public hearing is to be followed up with a sociological overview of all that was said during the event. More importantly though, the regional authority in charge of coordinating the just transition process will be answering the concerns and questions raised during the public hearing, and presenting plans for addressing them. Hopefully, this will mean that ensuring people the right to voice their concerns in a safe environment leads to them actually influencing the decision-making process in Eastern Wielkopolska, making the process as inclusive as possible.