Just transition funds represent a historic opportunity for Bulgaria to transform coal regions into hubs for sustainable energy production, but a lack of inclusion, poor transparency and delays in drafting Territorial Just Transition Plans could jeopardise it all.
Still a heavily coal-dependent country, Bulgaria has begun its path towards a just transition. The country, where coal provides around 40 per cent of electricity and the coal industry employs more than 13,000 people, now faces the difficult task of delivering an energy transformation and a wide set of social and environmental measures that will determine the Bulgarian people’s future.
But this is not the first transition for Bulgaria. The country’s most recent transformation began in 1989 with the fall of the communist regime, and the consequences of long-lasting reforms have since been evident in depopulation and economic collapse. Bobov Dol, a coal municipality in the Kyustendil region of southwest Bulgaria, was severely hit by that transition. After over 100 years of coal production, the town reached its peak in the ’80s, when 10-12,000 people worked in the coal industry. Over the past decades, however, the number of workers has drastically decreased to 400-500 miners, and the town’s population has dropped to approximately 6,500. Still, hope persists in the municipality.
Anton Iliev, head of the European Projects Directorate in the municipality of Bobov Dol, shared with us his optimism regarding the just transition Bobov Dol should undergo in the following years. Iliev hopes finances from the Just Transition Fund, worth EUR 1.2 billion, will help alleviate the effects of economic migration and create new, green jobs in the municipality, which he hopes will also help overcome depopulation.
Although there’s no lack of ideas for kickstarting the transition, the administrative capacity to develop and implement projects in the municipality is low. To Iliev, it’s clear that achieving a just transition is not an easy task, since a significant share of employment in the municipality is still tied to the nearby privately owned Bobov Dol thermal power plant, located in a village called Golemo Selo.
Despite several nearby lignite mines closing over the past decade, this power plant is still operating. To keep it running, coal is being substituted or mixed with other materials like waste. When approaching the power plant, you can feel the air getting heavier. At first glance, some greenery in the power plant’s vicinity masks the building’s ugly silhouette and the fact that polluted air is leaking from the concrete cracks of the power plant’s towers. People from the local communities feel the consequences of air pollution the most, especially those who grow food.
The power plant’s management is also keen to benefit from just transition money, but those in charge are not ready to shut down the power plant so easily. Although they plan to install photovoltaics by the end of 2023 to supplement coal burning for a couple of months, they consider gas a suitable replacement for coal. According to their statement, by 2025, they will substitute coal for gas, from which 20 per cent will rely on hydrogen. Despite their reluctance to shut the plant down, it is clear that the era of ‘black gold’ has passed and that the just transition is imminent.
Yet the Bobov Dol power plant is not an isolated case in Bulgaria. The Brickel (Maritsa East 1) thermal power plant in Galabovo, located in the coal region of Stara Zagora, was recently visited by the outgoing prime minister, Kiril Petkov, after several attempts made by the minister of environment and water. Brickel is just one of the four thermal power plants located in the energy complex of Galabovo, the largest energy complex in Southeast Europe and one of the biggest polluters in Bulgaria. The complex is infamous for breaching environmental and social safeguards. This inspection confirmed breaches of air pollution limits, which civil society organisations had been reporting for years, so Petkov demanded a quick response from the appropriate authorities.
Bulgaria ‘systematically and persistently exceeded’ the sulphur dioxide levels in the country’s southeast between 2007 and 2018, with 2010 and 2012 being the only exceptions. Since 11 June 2010, Bulgaria has not adopted appropriate measures to comply with both the hourly and daily sulphur dioxide limits in the country’s southeast. Even though this is a minor action, it would indicate that Bulgaria is taking steps to comply with the coal phase-out deadline and beginning its just transition.
All the stakeholders we met during our June advocacy trip pointed out that detailed plans for re-skilling workers, transforming jobs and creating strategies to address the social aspects of the just transition need to be included in the Territorial Just Transition Plans. However, the latest drafts of the plans do not include any of these things.
According to Stefan Krastev, deputy mayor of Pernik, the process of drafting the projects was not transparent and inclusive as he expected. The stakeholders, including the municipality, were asked for input, but then communication turned one-sided. Representatives of the Stara Zagora Regional Economic Development Agency had the same experience, and their feeling about decisions taking place behind closed doors was further amplified by silence from above. These stakeholders will have to wait for public consultations to have their say.
The fact that public consultations start at the beginning of August and last for only 15 days confirms the concerns the people we spoke to have about the inclusion process. It brings to the surface important questions. How can we expect that the transition will be just if basic principles like stakeholder involvement and transparency are crushed in the planning phase? Will the proposed measures reflect people’s needs if public participation is just a box-ticking exercise? It is now up to the Bulgarian government to get things right, amend the flawed process and prove that the just transition can bring much-needed change to Bulgaria.
Click here to read more about Bulgaria’s Territorial Just Transition Plans.