Coal accounts for about half of the energy produced in Bulgaria, where most power plants are supplied with cheap lignite from nearby mines. The country’s high coal dependency makes the conversation about phasing out seem almost impossible. While many in the country have played their role in maintaining this status quo, a first broad public debate about a coal phaseout and just transition took place this month in Sofia – and might contribute to turning the tide.
The event* ‘A Just Transition Beyond Coal’, taking place October 10 at the headquarters of the European Commission and European Parliament in Sofia, brought together more than 70 representatives of at least 37 public institutions, municipalities, businesses, trade unions and non-governmental organizations. The event was supported by the European Climate Initiative (EUKI) and CEE Bankwatch Network, and organised by environmental groups Za Zemiata and WWF Bulgaria, together with the Labour Confederation Podkrepa, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Industrial Association and the National Association of Municipalities in Bulgaria.
The public debate constituted a step forward in getting together opposing views and moving ahead towards building a vision of just transition in Bulgaria’s coal communities. Most of the participants shared the opinion that the process requires a number of measures that will help avoid social and environmental problems in regions moving away from coal.
“The transition must be just so that society can accept it. It is time to stop the harmful, self-centered antagonism between institutions, businesses, trade unions, local authorities and non-governmental organizations. Mutual accusations and the blocking of useful processes must end too,’ said Todor Todorov, coordinator Climate and Energy in Za Zemiata, part of Bankwatch network.
‘A peaceful energy transition could be successful in Bulgaria only if we realize that we need to work together and show that there is far more uniting us than what keeps us apart.”
He added that the quest for a better quality of life, which includes land rehabilitation and preservation of the environment, was in everyone’s common interest.
Georgi Stefanov, Chief Climate and Energy expert at WWF, presented the results of the first study on just transition in Bulgaria, focused on the southwest of the country. Stefanov said: “We have to overcome possible challenges like social exclusion and migration processes. That means we have to identify alternative companies which would invest in the region. Decisions made about a transition from coal should also include a financial framework and give solutions to all unsolved problems.”
The roundtable, which brought together the main shareholders from the business sector, trade unions, local authorities and NGOs, showed that the topic is important enough to unite groups with different backgrounds.
Through such efforts, Bulgarian institutions will gain the support of strong and competent experts and allies, become more active in their work towards a fair energy transition, and gain more public support for making some inevitable difficult decisions.
A fair transition is an important part of the EU’s 2030 climate and energy goals and, for Bulgaria, it represents an opportunity to move in the direction of sustainable development.
During the roundtable, Atanaska Nikolova, Minister of Environment and Water, put the discussion on just transition in a wider context, by stressing that climate change is a fact and a real danger to human life, health and economic development.
Leon de Graaf, Environmental and Climate Policy Advisor for BusinessEurope, stated that BusinessEurope fully supports the Paris Agreement and highlighted the importance of a just energy transition: “A just energy transition is only possible if all actors work together.”
For the just transition to be successful, the social element must be well planned and implemented, and the decentralisation of energy production should be accelerated, argued speakers from environmental NGOs Za Zemiata and WWF.
We have already seen the consequences of unmanaged coal mine closures: in June, when the Bobov Dol mine was shut down, 400 miners from the city of Bobov Dol and the surrounding area lost their jobs – and had no real alternatives to turn to. Although the region is entirely dependent on coal, the local authorities in Bobov Dol were left completely to their own devices when dealing with unemployment and depopulation.
“The mine was the only source of livelihood not only in our municipality, but within the whole region. We need new investors which will replace the mines closing down. I’m currently looking for investors in Greece, but obviously my efforts alone are not enough,” Elsa Velichkova, mayor of Bobov Dol, said during the event.
“There is no doubt that the transition in Bobov Dol is everything but just,” Béla Galgóczi, from the European Trade Union Institute pointed out.
“The problem lies with the government’s choice of a private owner for Bobov Dol TPP,” said Dimitar Manolov, president of Podkrepa.
“The transition in Bobov Dol is obviously unjust. We should do everything possible to prevent that happening again,” added Ognian Atanasov, national secretary in the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria.
The most precious aspect of the meeting was the constructive dialogue initiated among representatives of previously antagonistic stakeholders. Participants expressed hope this was a first step in a longer process of cooperation and consultative decision-making.
“We have started a thorough and frank discussion on the topic of a fair energy transition”, said Slavcho Neykov, Chairman of the Management Board of the Energy Management Institute and moderator of the discussion.
Neykov said that the amount of uncertainty about the future of coal in Bulgaria generates tensions on the regional and national level. The government is still keeping at stakeholders in the dark about the future of Bulgaria’s energy sector. A clear framework about the future of the sector was needed for constructive future discussions about the economic and social aspects of just transition.
*The event is part of the EUKI project in Central and Eastern Europe by the CEE Bankwatch Network and the EUKI project of WWF.