How will Europe tackle its coal conundrum?

The biggest ‘just’ energy transition in Europe is the one that involves those countries still reliant on coal, which accounts for a fifth of the electricity production in the EU and employs 230,000 people. By Kelvin Ross.

You will have heard many times now that the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic presents policymakers with an unprecedented opportunity to put climate measures at the forefront of any stimulus package.

This article was originally published in Power Engineering International Issue 5-2020. Read the mobile-friendly digimag or subscribe to receive a print copy.

Which is indeed true. However, there is already an imbalance of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ of the energy transition, and that gap could get wider instead of closing if we’re not careful.

I’m not talking globally: we all know that there’s not a one-size-fits-all clean energy solution for the world. I’m talking about Europe, the poster child of the energy transition.

Because while many countries have significant renewables capacity and can boast ‘smart cities’, some are still having to burn coal – and a lot of it – to keep the lights on.

If the energy transition is going to be a socalled ‘just transition’, then countries like Poland and the Czech Republic need to be front and centre of stimulus packages, and not at the back of the queue. In fact, if they’re not, the European Union can forget about ever hitting its 2050 climate neutral target.

Accelerating emissions reductions in central and eastern Europe could be the biggest win of any EU recovery package, and one that in turn could signpost the road to similar progress for countries in Asia facing the similar coal-versus-climate conundrum.

Coal accounts for around a fifth of the total electricity production in the European Union and remains a significant economic driver. It provides jobs to around 230,000 people in mines and power plants across 31 regions and 11 EU countries: these people and their potential reskilling need to be factored in to a ‘just’ energy transition.

The European Commission recognises the problem: in 2017 it formed its Initiative for Coal Regions in Transition, which works as an open forum to gather local, regional and national governments, businesses and trade unions, NGOs and academia.

And this summer, Frans Timmermans, EC Vice-President in charge of climate action, delivered a speech in the Polish city of Katowice in which he vowed that “we will not forget that not everyone in Europe has the same starting point” in the energy transition.

You can’t just pull the plug on 50 years of industrial history. We understand that and we won’t. That’s why the Just Transition is our top priority”.

Frans Timmermans

Timmermans said countries like Poland “have been bearing the weight of past decisions, taken in different political systems, which made hard coal and lignite the cornerstones of your industrial development. But this has to be – and can be – overcome.”

He said: “We will have to roll up our sleeves to make sure that this transition is socially fair,” and also highlighted that in terms of the transition from coal, “there is no other region in Europe today where a just transition is more important than in Silesia,” the region of Central Europe covering mostly Poland and with smaller parts in the Czech Republic and Germany.

He explained some 78,000 people are employed in the coal industry in the region and “for many households here, this industry is the main source of income.”

Timmermans: “Both my grandfathers were coal miners.” Image: EC

Timmermans, who is Dutch, added: “I’ve seen this in my life in my own country. Both my grandfathers were coal miners. We have lived through this. So I know how difficult it is to manage a transition such as this successfully.

“We will need to work together across different levels of government and across party lines to provide enough opportunities, secure jobs and bring investments where they are needed most.

And he accepted that “you can’t just pull the plug on 50 or 70 years of industrial history. We understand that and we won’t pull the plug. That’s why the Just Transition is our top priority.”

In July, Timmermans was part of the unveiling of a new report by Bloomberg Philanthropies and BloombergNEF (BNEF) called Investing in the Recovery and Transition of Europe’s Coal Regions.

It offered new in-depth analysis on the transition of the power sector in four key Central and Eastern European economies: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania.

Undertaken as part of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ partnership with the European Commission’s Coal Regions in Transition Platform, the report revealed that through clean energy investment, these countries can be important drivers of Europe’s green recovery and climate efforts.

Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies, said that “growing the economy and fighting climate change go hand in hand, and BNEF’s latest report shows that there’s a smart economic way for countries that still rely on coal to phase it out quickly, right now.”

“By investing in clean energy, governments in Central and Eastern Europe can help drive the economic recovery from COVID-19, while also reducing air pollution, improving health, and slowing the effects of climate change.” Poland’s Climate Minister Michał Kurtyka echoed those thoughts: “Energy transition is essential towards EU climate neutrality by 2050.”

But he stressed “it is not the only action. We need unprecedented changes in the existing way of life – change the way of mobility, housing, and even food production.

“We need to secure existing investments to guarantee the continuation of the transformation, strengthen local industry and direct new investments not only to reduce emissions, but also to increase employment and resilience of economies.”

He said Central and Eastern European countries “may soon be the driving force for the green recovery and implementation of EU climate ambitions. However, great opportunities often carry even greater responsibilities and the other EU member states need support from the Recovery Fund to stimulate economies, protect key sectors from the effects of the recession, and trigger a transformation with the mission of achieving climate and energy goals for 2030.”

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