Published on May 19, 2021

What to do when public participation in the planning of Territorial Just Transition Plans is more formal than substantial?

by Rosa Hergan

Participation and co-design clad the EU’s just transition architecture, but the reality of devising Territorial Just Transition Plans (TJTP) doesn’t always hold up to these expectations. Environmental campaigners taking part in the 3rd Coal Platform meeting in late April warned that the only way to meet the needs of affected residents living in coal regions is by giving them a seat at the table.

To access the EUR 17.5 billion Just Transition Fund (JTF), EU member states must submit TJTPs that outline the expected process of transitioning away from a coal-based economy; the most affected territories and all types of impacts; what operations are envisaged; and how the process will ensure participation, monitoring and evaluation. TJTPs are developed at the sub-regional level and therefore countries must produce documents for each territory where they plan to spend money from the Just Transition Fund.

The absence of any clear benchmarks for transparency and participatory TJTP planning processes in the EC’s regulation on the Just Transition Fund is concerning when at the same time “fair” and “inclusive” transition processes are promoted as the foundation of the energy transition during the Coal Regions in Transition virtual week from 26-29 April, which was organised by the Just Transition Platform. 

The 3rd edition of the Coal platform meeting came at a time when EU Member States should be closing in on their just transition and investment plans to access the Just Transition Fund (JTF). And although workgroups have been set up and plans are well underway, Bankwatchs’ recent briefing on these processes in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia warns of shallow public engagement processes:  

“There is a risk that countries will only submit a list of projects which can spend public money quickly – instead of using this process to create solid strategies for the redevelopment of these communities, with buy-in from locals and which would serve as guidance for decades to come,” conclude the authors, campaigners monitoring the drafting of the plans across the six countries.  

At a webinar on Lessons Learned from Territorial Just Transition Plans during the Coal Platform meeting, Katie Treadwell, WWF Energy policy officer, doubled down on this issue and underlined the fact that that fast-tracked processes jeopardise the quality of plans by prioritising projects over comprehensive and clear strategies to phase out coal industries at the regional level. 

Bankwatch and WWF have been calling for more commitment to creating transparent and reciprocal partnerships and promoting a stronger leadership by representatives of local communities in the designing of these plans. The Just Transition process in Estonia and Slovakia shows how it’s done. 

Otherwise, superficial consultation processes will not only silence the voices of a wider range of affected stakeholders but essentially risk the TJTP’s legitimacy at the local level. Put this against the backdrop of underlying demographic challenges in the EU’s coal regions, ranging from population decline, brain drain, and weak local economies, and these climate mitigation policies can both amplify pre-existing vulnerabilities and entrench conservative positions that cling onto the status quo among affected communities. 

Make local voices count through facilitated dialogue processes 

The reality of power politics and vested interests in phasing out coal industries renders the engagement of local communities paramount to tailoring upskilling and reskilling opportunities while reducing existing social inequalities in these regions.

In March, Bankwatch presented recommendations for a more equitable dialogue format that helps address a weakly enforced partnership principle in multi-stakeholder dialogues in CEE countries alongside the asymmetric focus on job creation pushed by the polluting industry on TJTPs with the attempt to dodge the polluter pays principle.

Transparency and meaningful partnerships should lay at the heart of the TJTPs. This means information about the work of consultants on TJTPs has to be publicly disclosed by the states and the EC. Ideally, all information should be published on websites in a user-friendly format and language, or local actors should be informed directly. As suggested by Katie Treadwell during the Coal Platform, the Commission should promote transparency of the plans by setting up an info-hub about all things related to the plans. 

Last but not least, the opportunity to influence the final version of the plans should be guaranteed by the country and Commission. More precisely, if the Commission were to live up to its pledges towards participation in the just transition process, it should uphold its own partnership principles enshrined in the European Code of Conduct on Partnership, and consequently refrain from adopting any plans that haven’t yet meaningfully involved partners.

The energy transition’s impact reaches well beyond the industries that need to be phased out, affecting the culture and identity of the affected regions. Multi-actor dialogues based on meaningful partnerships with CSOs and local stakeholders are needed to ensure active participation and contribution by all interested parties; they cannot be replaced by formal updates about the proceedings of the TJTPs within the working groups or by the consultant.

Photo by Flickr user PES.