Jiu Valley, Romania’s most notorious coal region, finds itself well-placed to take advantage of the generous resources made available by Brussels for the transition of coal regions. Having learned from the region’s painful past of unmanaged mine closures in the 1990s, active actors in the Jiu Valley are now strategising for a second – this time, just – transition.
Planting the seeds
In December 2017, the European Commission launched the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition, meant to help coal regions across the continent move away from fossil fuel dependency via resources and knowledge-sharing. The Platform would continue to offer guidance and expertise in the region throughout the following years, to be accompanied in the future by important financial resources. Earlier that year, Bankwatch had published an eight-step guide to just transition.
The start of the new push for just transition in Jiu Valley could be dated back to April 2018, when the region was included in the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition (the Romanian government was interested in cooperating with the Platform, luckily). Soon after, NGOs Bankwatch and Greenpeace Romania started to act as facilitators between the local community and the European structure.
‘At the time, only a few people knew what just transition was or what big opportunities were knocking at the door, so we tried to make sure that everybody was informed and at the same table’, says Alexandru Mustață, Bankwatch just transition campaigner.
Bankwatch campaigners participated in all meetings of the Coal Platform taking place in Brussels in 2018 and since, promoting bottom-up involvement and offering arguments for the importance of public participation in the early days, when grassroots actors risked being sidelined.
Back in Jiu Valley, in May 2018, Bankwatch took part in meetings with the Hunedoara County Council, the prefect, mayors and civil society across the region, which started generating new avenues for cooperation among local actors.
‘Some stakeholders like the trade unions were suspicious of our intentions, as one would expect, given our objective for a European coal phaseout before 2030. But we chose to focus instead on what we have in common – a desire to prevent the catastrophic effects of yet another unplanned transition’, Mustață said.
‘And everybody was interested in playing an active role in this process, given the fact that the region already went from 90,000 employees in the sector in 1990 to under 4,000 today. Especially the local civil society, our most important partner from the beginning, [was] keen – and some organisations have decades of experience’.
With the support of the local community, Bankwatch organised two meetings with representatives of the Ministry for European Funds in the summer of 2018 in Bucharest. This Ministry is responsible for the implementation of the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition in Romania, and Bankwatch advocated for the transition to a low carbon economy through a participatory national process. Greenpeace and actors from Jiu Valley took part in the second meeting.
In April 2019, Bankwatch and Greenpeace organised a visit of a European Commission team to Jiu Valley and facilitated a roundtable discussion between the Commission representatives and local authorities, NGOs, trade unions, local businesses, and representatives of the Ministries for European Funds and Energy. The objectives of the meeting were to understand the opportunities created by the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition and to start a direct dialogue between Brussels and Jiu Valley.
The officials from the European Commission visited two of the most interesting projects already being developed in the region: the efforts of grassroots organisation Planeta Petrila to save and reconvert the mining heritage of the Petrila mine, the oldest coal mine in Romania, which opened in 1858; and a mountain bike trail built by the Noi Orizonturi Foundation, set up in Lupeni in the early 2000s with the aim of building a world-class biking trail in Jiu Valley.
‘The Planeta Petrila project represents the concrete form of a vision for a new center of Petrila, and – why not – of the entire Jiu Valley. Through the complexity of its functions, the project allows for the replacement of unsustainable means of subsistence [mining] with new types of activities: environmentally-friendly cultural, economic and research projects’, says Mihai Danciu, an architect with the Planeta Petrila organisation.
‘What in 2012 was an industrial site on the verge of demolition is now a site in the process of bottom-up urban regeneration. Although we encountered administrative difficulties, we’re now carrying out the first procedures for the restoration of the mining complex itself: application[s] for financing the restoration, integration of the regeneration area within the General Urbanism Plan and daily activities to inform visitors’, Danciu says.
Mayors get interested
As interesting as they are, the local economy cannot rely solely on NGO projects. People need well-paying jobs that can only be generated by investments in business infrastructure.
As the region’s six mayors were already familiar with the concept of just transition from Bankwatch and Greenpeace, and from the visit of the Coal Platform to the region, facilitated by the same NGOs, they became interested in the way that this vision could aid them in their endeavor for change and economic diversification.
In July 2019, at a Coal Platform meeting in Brussels, the mayors signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Just Transition, in which they agreed to collaborate to move their local economy away from coal. At the meeting, the mayors discussed with DG Energy’s deputy director general, Klaus Dieter Borchardt, about the limited resources available to tackle their development problems.
The Memorandum of Understanding is already being put into practice: in October, the six mayors successfully applied for technical assistance from the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition through the START programme, meant to help them identify projects that benefit the whole region.
‘We are now starting to get some results [on issues] that we have been working on for years. I really have confidence in what will happen. I have great confidence in European funds. […] We want projects for the entire Jiu Valley, we want projects for all citizens … We want to attract as much money as possible for Jiu Valley, because, with our resources alone, we are not able to do much’, said Lucian Resmeriță, mayor of Lupeni, at a press conference.
In order to discover alternative scenarios for the transition beyond coal, Bankwatch and Greenpeace commissioned the Romanian Centre for Economic Policy to produce a macroeconomic modelling for Jiu Valley. The research identified five economic scenarios, two of inaction and three of redevelopment. The last three are focused on the primary sectors of the economy (agriculture, industry and services) and are built as viable, equitable and sustainable alternatives. For the scenarios to be implemented, programmes for reskilling, increasing the competitiveness of products and services, increasing the connectivity of the area, strengthening administrative capacity and stimulating collaboration between local actors would be needed.
The study, called ‘Just transition in Hunedoara – Economic, Equitable and Sustainable Diversification’, was launched in September 2019. As the findings of the research were relevant both for the regional authorities and the central government, the NGOs organised two events to promote it. The first was held in Lupeni (Jiu Valley) in the presence of mayors, county representatives, NGOs, local business representatives and the press. The second was held in Bucharest, attended by Romanian government officials, civil society and trade unions. Speakers from CEE coal regions also attended the Bucharest and presented both shortcomings and positive experiences from their regions.
As part of the Jiu Valley Initiative launched by the Ministry for European Funds, in late 2019, the Ministry applied for technical assistance from the EU in order to commission a transition strategy for Jiu Valley. The selected consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), recently designed a similar strategy for Upper Nitra, Slovakia, which is considered a good practice example for engaging widespread participation in the process. PwC said it would take into account the alternative development scenario study published by Bankwatch Romania and Greenpeace.
In December 2019, civil society in Jiu Valley formed an official coalition called ‘Jiu Valley Involved’, with the objective of supporting the sustainable development of the Valley – not only the just transition process, but also other local issues the community faces.
The coalition requested a meeting with PwC in January 2020 and they have been involved in consultations ever since: ‘Representatives of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) were open to the coalition’s proposal, sharing common principles with our organisations. […] Seven representatives of Jiu Valley Involved spoke with PwC and identified the common desire for a genuine grassroots consultation with all local actors, so that this strategy belongs to the community and every citizen has the opportunity to express their perspective on our region’.
National planning taking shape
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown meant that many activities, including Platform meetings in Jiu Valley, were delayed. PwC nevertheless continued to work on the transition strategy and in March 2020 they published the first draft for public consultation.
The first stage of the consultations consisted of two weeks of online meetings with civil society organisations and business representatives and was meant to identify the main obstacles and opportunities for the just transition process. This stage will be followed by consultations with the local public administration, the central government, and hopefully citizens from the Valley. Even though the participants from the region had a tendency to focus on its mining heritage and previous failed strategies to develop the region, there was a lot of interest in new projects and a fresh start. In this first part of the consultation, project ideas were identified on four priority development axes: infrastructure, economic diversification, local heritage, and healthy and sustainable life quality. Discussions about tourism and infrastructure development were often intertwined with the necessity of preserving the environment and the natural beauty of the region – which everyone agrees should be one of the cornerstones of the future development in Jiu Valley.
At the same time, the Ministry for European Funds announced the first draft of the first financial programme dedicated to just transition in March. The Just Transition Operational Programme 2021-2027 is addressed to coal regions in transition – Hunedoara (Jiu Valley) and Gorj – but also to other carbon-intensive regions. The programme is intended to contribute to the creation of new SMEs and investments in existing ones in the fields of research, green energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but also to reskill the workforce and create new job opportunities. The final version is expected to be ready in April 2021 and approved in June 2021.
As recently as May the European Commission has approved all requests made by 18 Member States for support with the preparation of their territorial just transition plans, which each Member State will have to draw up to get access to funding from the Just Transition Mechanism. This is an ongoing process, and the technical assistance in Jiu Valley will last until the end of 2020.
With all these developments in mind and seeing the strength that an involved society can have, we can finally say that Jiu Valley is on a successful path of fair redevelopment. The region will soon have a ready-to-go just transition plan for a ten year period which will lay the groundwork for a more clean, resilient and just local economy.
Text written by: Raluca Petcu (Bankwatch Romania), with help from Dan Dobre and Alexandru Mustață
Main photo: Visit of EC delegation to Jiu Valley. Photo by Andrei Duda for Planeta Petrila. Source.
Photo of Ion Barbu: Adrian Catu for Bankwatch.
Other photos: courtesy of Greenpeace Romania and Bankwatch Romania.