Interview to Rebekka Popp
“Minimizing the negative impacts from the closure of coal mines and plants for communities and workers requires a well-managed transition process”
This month, following our 2020 editorial line: climate challenges, we deal with an economic challenge: the restructuration of former mining areas. We have interviewed Rebekka Popp, researcher at E3G’s Berlin office.
Which European regions have been and will be most affected by the closure of coal mines?
There are 108 European regions with coal infrastructure and roughly 237,000 people are employed in coal mining and coal-fired power plants. The member states with the largest installed coal capacity are Germany, Poland, Italy, Czechia, and Spain. Employment is highest in Germany and Central and Eastern European countries like Poland, Czechia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
The age of coal is coming to an end. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the electricity sector has further worsened the economic trouble of coal. Recent analysis found that 80% of the EU’s 140 GW coal fleet is already uncompetitive in 2020. What is more, with the European Green Deal the EU Commission made clear that the EU is pursuing greater climate ambition and ramping up its emissions reductions target for 2030. This requires a rapid reduction and eventual phase out of coal capacity.
Minimizing the negative impacts from the closure of coal mines and plants for communities and workers requires a well-managed transition process – a Just Transition – based on a transition strategy that outlines a future development path for the region and is developed with all regional actors affected by these changes.
Importantly, national governments need to provide guidance to this process with a coal phase out plan that is in line with the Paris Agreement. Analysis shows that all EU countries need to phase out coal by 2030 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. While the coal phase out in the EU is rapidly advancing and countries like Spain will be coal free by the mid-2020s or even earlier, big coal countries like Bulgaria, Czechia, Germany, Poland and Romania are planning to use coal way beyond 2030. While Germany is beginning to implement a transition process in its coal regions, the other countries are missing out on helping their regions building up a future without coal. This may result in a situation where market forces drive out coal, at the expense of affected workers and communities.
What alternatives are there for former mines regarding environmental rehabilitation?
Environmental rehabilitation and repurposing of infrastructures used for mining and related activities is a major challenge for coal regions in transition. But it can contribute to creating a safe and healthy environment and can be an important economic opportunity for regions to attract new businesses and jobs.
Learnings from past restoration and reclamation of decommissioned lignite mining facilities in the Eastern part of Germany show that a reliable legal framework (which exists in most European countries) as well as strong institutions backed by political will and sufficient funding are factors for success. Mutual learning and experience sharing between regions with similar challenges can provide inspiration and help in developing solutions.
Governments have an important role in ensuring that costs for rehabilitation are not being borne by taxpayers or local municipalities. Based on the polluter-pays-principle, coal companies should be responsible for addressing and covering the costs of environmental degradation, and for making locations formerly used for mining and related industrial activities available for future use.
After the exploitation of their local resources, what is left for the inhabitants of a former mining region? How could problems such as job losses be solved?
Coal mining regions differ with respect to many characteristics and each region is unique with specific capacities and challenges. The prospects of a region depend on many factors, including the type of coal, the degree of urbanization, the overall economic prosperity of a region and the existence of a national coal phase out plan.
Regional transition strategies are central to preparing regions for a future without coal and buffering the consequences from mine and plant closure. These strategies need to be driven by all stakeholders from affected regions: people from a given region best know its strengths and weaknesses and what they want it to look like in the future.
Studies have shown that the potential for renewable energy technologies in many EU coal regions is very high as they benefit from already existing infrastructure, land, skills, and industrial heritage. This can create new jobs and even exceed job losses in the coal sector. There are also examples of regions which show how green investments can create even more jobs than the coal sector offers. For example, a combination of investments in thermal retrofitting of buildings, photovoltaic installations, and the production of batteries for electric vehicles could lead to the creation of many new jobs in the Polish Belchatow coal region.
Does the EU have programmes for coal regions? Who benefits from them?
The EU’s Coal Regions in Transition Platform was set up in 2017 and brings together coal regions from across Europe to share experiences and best practice examples in the transition away from coal. The secretariat of the platform also provides tools and guidelines for organizing a regional transition process.
Under its President Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission has made Just Transition a political priority and proposed the creation of a Just Transition Mechanism including a Just Transition Fund. The fund will be open to all member states and help regions with coal, peat, oil-shale and carbon-intensive industrial activities to slash their emissions by closing fossil infrastructure. This broad focus is necessary because reaching climate neutrality requires all member states to reduce emissions in all sectors of the economy such as energy, buildings, transport or livestock farming.
To receive funding, member states will have to prepare regional transition plans. This process is beginning now and has already kicked-off discussions in some regions where these were previously not taking place. While this is a big achievement of the fund, it remains to be seen whether it will help the EU become climate neutral by 2050 at the latest. As long as the fund does not require recipient countries to put in place a coal phase out plan, the risk remains that no real transition will take place.
The size of the fund and some of its modalities will be negotiated between the European Parliament and the member states in the Council. Regardless of how big it will be, there are also other funds in the EU budget that support the energy transition of the EU’s coal regions.
- [European Commission Report] – EU Coal Regions Opportunities and Challenges Ahead
- [Rocky Mountain Institute Article] – How to Retire Early Making Accelerated Coal Phaseout Feasible and Just
- [E3G Publication] – A Just Transition for all or Just a Transition
- [Climate Analytics Publication] – Implications of the Paris Agreement for Coal Use in the Power Sector
- [Ember Climate Publication] – Just Transition or Just Talk?
- [European Commission News] – Energy Transition can Provide Alternative for Jobs at Risk in Coal Regions
- [Instrat Case Study] – Green jobs in coal regions. Case study: Bełchatów
- [European Comission] – EU Coal Region Resources
- [E3G Publication] – Briefing Summary. The Just Transition Fund: 4 Benchmarks for Success
Rebekka Popp is a Researcher in E3G’s Berlin office. E3G is an independent climate change think tank accelerating the transition to a climate safe world. Her work focuses on the Just Transition to climate neutrality in the EU, in particular in the coal and industrial sector. Through her work, she aims to strengthen the role of Just Transition in EU legislation and in political processes in Germany and Central and Eastern European countries.