Published on July 10, 2018

Just Transition not just a transition!

, Stavros Mavrogenis (WWF Greece)

The shift from coal to a low-emission or zero-emission economy is now an inevitable reality due to recent changes in European environmental legislation (ETS reform, Industrial Emissions Directive, new Large Combustion Plants Best Reference Document, etc.) and impressive progress in renewables and energy storage technologies.

The question is no longer whether or not we will abandon coal but when.

However, we have still not addressed the key question: Will this transition be smooth and socially just for those regions in the European Union (EU) which, for decades, have relied on coal, fuelling their economic growth on dirty energy at the expense of their communities’ health and the environment? Or will the changes be ad-hoc and violent, with disastrous effects for the social cohesion of the mining regions?  

The promotion of the Just Transition concept was the main reason for the advocacy trip that WWF organised in Brussels (19-21 June 2018) under the framework of the Just Transition in Eastern and Southern Europe project, funded by the EUKI initiative. Five delegations from WWF offices (Germany, Bulgaria, Poland, Greece as well as the European Policy Office) met with Members of the European Parliament, European Commission officials and national officials from each country’s Permanent Representation to the EU, to discuss the progress of the Just Transition process in the EU. Moreover, on Thursday 21/06 we co-organized with the Group of Progressive MEPs GLOBE a panel discussion in the European Parliament, focusing on the challenges of Just Transition.

The panel of speakers was diverse and included Anna Colucci, a representative of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Energy; Sirpa Pietikäinen, MEP and GLOBE EU President; Svetoslav Malinov, Bulgarian MEP; Benjamin Denis from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC); Lefteris Ioannidis, mayor of Kozani -Greece’s lignite “capital”; as well as researchers and WWF representatives.

Central to our discussions and contacts was the ambivalence of the EU to develop and implement effective policies for the shift from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels towards sustainable economic activities that would prevent rising unemployment and the financial meltdown of the regions.

On the one hand, the EU demonstrates ambitious goals in the context of the implementation of the Paris Agreement, the updated Clean Energy Package and the recent changes in its legislation (the Pollutant Exchange Directive, new stricter emission limits for large combustion plants, etc.). On the other hand, it has shown no willingness to secure the financial resources needed for the transition of its coal/lignite-dependent regions, while also promoting expensive and ineffective “clean” coal technologies which will prolong the coal-based electricity model.

About a year ago, during the negotiations for the revision of the Emissions Trading System (ETS), a proposal to establish a European Just Transition Fund was not accepted. Member states (not all, unfortunately) can now seek just transition funding from the Modernization Fund.

To address this gap, the European Commission launched in December 2017 the “Coal Regions in Transition Platform”, meant to support the transition coal/lignite-dependent regions. Even though the initiative initially received a positive welcome, it was later severely criticised by NGOs, because of transparency and participatory issues, and because of the focus of its “advanced technologies” stream: until now, the focus has been solely on “clean” coal technologies that perpetuate the use of coal, with no discussion of alternatives to coal.

These concerns were also discussed during the panel event in Brussels. The majority of the speakers agreed that the coal phaseout is inevitable, and that the Coal Platform should be more open to other stakeholders such as civil society organisations and trade unions. Just Transition is a participatory process that requires stakeholders’ engagement and long-term planning. If the EU shows the necessary political will, it can pave the way for the Member States to follow. However, this is not simple.

There are a few challenges that need to be addressed as soon as possible:

Firstly, the EU should make clear that there is no future for the so-called “advanced coal” or “clean coal” technologies. The coal lobby puts a lot of pressure to promote “clean coal” – as this is its last chance to survive – but the EU must resist and leave no doubts that this is not the way forward.

Secondly, the Coal Platform should change its bureaucratic structure from a closed-doors forum to an institution based on participation and accountability.

Thirdly, the EU should more actively engage in the negotiation of the new Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) with the aim of securing the financial resources for coal/lignite regions. The inclusion of Fair Transition as one of the priorities of the Cohesion Policy and as a financing priority in the Operational Programs will bring benefits for coal/lignite areas.

The text of the Rome Declaration on the 50th anniversary of the EU makes a strong reference to the union’s social pillar and its significant achievements. Just Transition is not just about protecting the environment and tackling climate change. It concerns the future of thousands of workers in coal mines and coal power plants, their families and the future of dozens of regions with millions of citizens who are currently struggling and feeling uncertain about their future. The EU has the moral obligation to show the way towards a future with clean energy, sustainable development and more and better jobs for all.

Photo by Flickr user Takver.