Published on April 13, 2020

Eastern Wielkopolska’s just transition vision brings all actors together

, Emilia Slimko (Polish Green Network)

Inspired by local non-governmental organisations, the Wielkopolska Marshal’s Office became interested in the issue of Eastern Wielkopolska’s just transition in 2017.

Inspired by local non-governmental organisations, the Wielkopolska Marshal’s Office became interested in the issue of Eastern Wielkopolska’s just transition in 2017.

Worried about the uncertain situation of the mining and energy industry and the related threats to the future of Eastern Wielkopolska, in March 2018 members of the region’s executive body headed by Maciej Sytek passed a resolution to establish a task force for restructuring the economic potential of the Konin subregion at the Economy Department of the Marshal’s Office. It was agreed that the task force would be composed of representatives of various departments of the Marshal’s Office and its mission would involve “working out recommendations for the subregion’s local government, its local economic self-government bodies and its sector-specific professional self-government councils, whose implementation would contribute to a significant change in the local job market and boost the subregion’s economic potential”.

During a meeting with journalists in June 2018, Maciej Sytek declared that the changes which would be proposed by the regional government would be subject to comprehensive public consultations so as to “make Konin, Koło, Turek and Słupca (…) independent of the power industry” and to help them “avoid the consequences borne by many regions when one specific industry collapsed”.

Having established the task force, the Marshal’s Office submitted a request to the European Commission to allow Eastern Wielkopolska to join the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition (the so-called Coal Platform). During the Platform’s second working meeting in July 2018, the Konin region was represented by both civil society and the local and regional government. The situation was similar during the Platform’s third meeting held in November 2018, when bilateral talks on Eastern Wielkopolska joining the Coal Platform took place.

The establishment, in January 2019, of the office of the Regional Government’s Plenipotentiary for Eastern Wielkopolska’s Restructuring at the Regional Development Agency in Konin was a major step that confirmed the regional government’s commitment to the process of the region’s just transition. Former deputy marshal of the region Maciej Sytek was appointed to this office and his new tasks included establishing a transition task force to assist local governments, companies and communities in the transition process. In this way, the task force established in Konin was to take over the functions of the task force that had previously been created at the Marshal’s Office. Maciej Sytek was also appointed head of the Regional Development Agency and as part of his responsibilities announced the launch of transition activities in the region.

Eastern Wielkopolska joined the Coal Platform on 28 March 2019 in the Polish Country Team formula. In the opinion of civil society representatives, the fact that the region was granted the status of the Platform’s member is an important achievement, especially considering that alongside the Marshal’s Office, civil society organisations spared no effort to support the process. Currently Eastern Wielkopolska, like Silesia, has its own task force under the Platform. This has paved the way for direct meetings with the European Commission and for submitting and negotiating concrete projects.

The Agreement on Eastern Wielkopolska’s just energy transition

One of the major achievements of the Regional Development Agency in Konin in the first six months of its work on transition involved initiating and signing (on 3 April 2019) of the “Agreement on Eastern Wielkopolska’s just energy transition”.

The Agreement was signed by more than forty entities from the region representing the local and regional authorities, the private sector and non-governmental organisations, marking an important success and a milestone on the road to cooperation. The signatories recognise the importance of acting for the benefit of just transition while taking into account sustainable development and the voice of civil society. They have declared their willingness to cooperate in implementing new initiatives and investments in the region and under the Coal Platform. The Agreement is voluntary, open to new entities and its actions are coordinated by the Regional Development Agency.

It is worth emphasising that the Agreement was signed by a highly diversified group of stakeholders. The local and regional government signatories included the mayor of Konin, the head and deputy head of the Regional Development Agency, as well as county administrators, town mayors and municipality administrators from the four counties of Koło, Konin, Słupca and Turek. The civil society and business signatories included the president of the Akcja Konin association, deputy president of the ZmieniaMy Konin association, a proxy of the Studio Inicjatyw Samorządowych foundation, presidents of county Economic Chambers, the president of the State University of Applied Sciences in Konin, the president of the Polish Association of Village Leaders and of the Self-Government Society, the president of the Wielkopolska Association of Village Leaders, representatives of the Guild of Various Crafts from four counties, the president of the Kłodawa Salt Mine and the then president and vice-president of the management board of ZE PAK.

At the conference during which the Agreement was signed, the mayor of Konin Piotr Korytkowski described the significance of this event in the following way: „We, local and regional government officials and entrepreneurs from the Konin region, will be seen and heard by the European Commission only if our voice is consistent and strong and our plans and projects well-coordinated. To achieve this, we need to tighten our cooperation and use the opportunity offered by the creation of the EU Platform for Coal Regions in Transition and the support of the Regional Development Agency. This is the only way – involving joint efforts and understanding for the needs of each one of us – for us to achieve an unprecedented absorption of EU funds by our region”.

Alongside this, a letter of intent was signed regarding cooperation between Konin, the Wielkopolska region, the Regional Development Agency, the ZE PAK company and the Konin Economic Chamber in implementation of activities connected with transition processes. The letter contained a declaration of readiness to cooperate in the following fields: „“[…] in the field of development of low-carbon transportation, the construction of a hydrogen research centre and an electrolysis installation to produce hydrogen, projects connected with electromobility, as well as other projects focused on renewable sources of energy such as photovoltaic installations and wind farms and geothermal power stations”.

Mayor Korytkowski stressed that these projects “are in line with European trends regarding the development of low-carbon economy and with the objectives of the EU’s energy policy according to which 80% of electricity produced in the EU should come from renewable energy sources by 2050. This is an ambitious goal. It is difficult to achieve by countries such as Poland, especially in regions such as Eastern Wielkopolska. However, it makes us feel sure that in the coming years the available EU funds will include funds for implementation of pro-environmental development projects and investments in the high technology sector”.

Signatories to both agreements are now facing major challenges which include working out a formula for further cooperation, initiating work on a transition plan and involving all interested stakeholders. Considering the size of ZE PAK’s business activity and the impact it has on the residents of Eastern Wielkopolska and the natural environment, the company’s participation in the agreements is a positive development in the context of transition processes in the region. The company’s corporate communication department has issued a statement in which the company refers to a European Commission press release regarding the creation of the Coal Platform and recognises the opportunity this initiative offers to the region.

The statement suggests that the company is aware of the need to carry out pro-environmental activities and to act for the benefit of just transition, and at the same time it emphasises that to be able to continue to be a competitive company in its sector, it counts on support, including financial support, from the state and from the Coal Platform. The statement from ZE PAK also reads that the current situation on the energy market encourages the company to look for new low-carbon sources of energy to serve as an alternative to coal. Therefore, hoping that Eastern Wielkopolska will receive support as a coal mining region, ZE PAK has prepared several investment proposals that are in line with the transition’s objectives.

However, it should be noted that ZE PAK and the remaining stakeholders of the transition process have numerous divergent interests. It will be necessary to overcome these divergences because otherwise the company can hardly be a constructive partner in the just transition process while at the same it time pushes through new opencast mines regardless of the objection voiced by local communities and the need to phase out coal.

One voice in Brussels and projects focused on transition

The signed Agreement was presented a few days later during the fourth working meeting of the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition held in Brussels in April 2019. The team representing Wielkopolska included representatives of three sectors – the local and regional government sector, the civil society sector and the business sector. According to the civil society representatives, in Brussels the team from Wielkopolska clearly demonstrated that the region would speak in one strong voice.

During the meeting in Brussels, talks were held between representatives of the Regional Development Agency and the European Commission regarding projects that could potentially receive funding from various EU funds. The process of collecting and preparing projects was launched at the beginning of 2019. This was when the Agency’s head met with representatives of the region’s municipalities, explained the transition concept to them and invited them to submit project proposals. The Agency assumed the role of the institution in charge of collecting projects and negotiating their content and financial aspects with the European Commission. During the meeting in Brussels in April, twenty-one projects were presented, including three proposed by the city of Konin, two – by the Kleczew municipality, eight by the Agency and eight by ZE PAK.

The projects can be divided into several main categories:

devising the region’s development strategy This is an element of a more comprehensive project focused on developing Eastern Wielkopolska’s regional brand. The main goal of this strategy development exercise is to boost the region’s economic potential in the field of broadly understood energy transition.

transportation The project envisages the creation of an integrated “green” public transportation system by building public transportation networks in the region and developing environmentally friendly means of public transportation.

education Understood in particular as improving competences and skills of workers employed in the fuel and energy sectors and expanding young people’s education opportunities to include specialisations focused on new technologies.

reclamation of former opencast mining sites The project carried out in the Kleczew municipality involves reclamation of a lignite excavation site and development of recreation and leisure infrastructure there.

“green” financial support for companies and the public and private sector Financial support includes subsidies and loans offered to micro-, small- and medium-sized companies to finance investments in renewable energy sources (RES), co-funding of purchase and assembly of new RES installations and micro-installations on single-family and multi-family residential buildings, co-funding of energy efficiency improvement in public buildings.

energy generation This category includes the creation of a business and research incubator for hydrogen technologies, the creation of the “Zielona Energia – Konin” energy cluster, installation of heat pumps with photovoltaic systems in public buildings, development of geothermal energy installations. The projects submitted by ZE PAK include the planned construction of photovoltaic farms on reclaimed post-mining sites, a heatstorage facility to heat the city of Konin, wind farms on reclaimed sites, an energy storage facility to support RES installations built on ZE PAK’s premises, a logistic centre combined with the construction of photovoltaic farms on the roofs, as well as hydrogen generation, storage and distribution infrastructure.

tourism and culture Projects in this category include initiatives such as the creation of a green tourist trail in Eastern Wielkopolska, organisation of an annual international film festival, development of art house cinemas, plein-air workshops for painters and sculptors. Cultural activities are intended to be part of a more comprehensive initiative focused on cultural re-definition of post-industrial areas in Eastern Wielkopolska.

Because the project concepts had to be prepared for presentation within a short time, most of them are previously devised initiatives that are consistent with the objectives of just transition. Unfortunately, in this set of projects only minor emphasis was placed on the challenge of retraining the miners who may change or lose their jobs. At present, details of the submitted project proposals are being clarified and implementation is likely to start in the new 2021–2027 financial perspective (although some projects may be launched under the current 2014–2020 financial perspective).

This text is a fragment of the report “Just Transition of Silesia. Challenges from the civil society perspective – analysis and recommendations”, published earlier this year by Polish Green Network, a Bankwatch member group in Poland. Photo by Jakub Szafranski for Krytyka Polityczna, used with permission, shows local Piotr Krygier, whose farm in Eastern Wielkopolska was affected by water shortages caused by mining.