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Addressing the social aspect of the coal phase-out: lessons learnt from the UK

The European Union’s target is to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 55 per cent by 2030. This means phasing out coal by that same date. In 2020, the EU coal production amounted to 56 million tonnes, a remarkable decline compared to the 277 million tonnes of 1990. However, currently, 41 regions in 12 EU Member States are still actively mining coal, providing jobs to about 240,000 people: 180,000 in the mining of coal and lignite and 60,000 in coal- and lignite-fired power plants.

Most of these people have limited opportunities to find alternative employment due to a lack of skills or a lack of alternative jobs in their regions. And that’s the main challenge of a coal phase-out that must happen fast but that, at the same time, must also include inequality, equity and fairness in the transition process.

What UK history teaches us

The United Kingdom managed to completely change its mining landscape, closing out plants and finding an alternative usage of sites and their workforce. Thus, it is a good example for those Central and Eastern European countries that are now looking at the same challenge.

“The last coal-powered station will close in 2024,” said Michael Macdonald, Negotiations Officer at Prospect, speaking at an online event entitled A Just Transition from Coal: Exploring UK experiences with Central and Eastern Europe and organised by the UK Embassy in Budapest in cooperation with the Centre for Climate Justice at the Glasgow Caledonian University.

“It is an incredible shock for people of my generation who were promised a job for life and it is a huge impact for coal communities,” Mr Macdonald continued. “It is not only a loss of jobs but these jobs were part of a supply chain.”

He underlined that a just transition must be founded on three pillars: skills, a phased change and partnerships for replacement growth.

“Coal-based skills are valuable,” Mr Macdonald stated. “Also valuable is to protect the supply chain and prevent the loss of skilled young people. It is also important to work with stakeholders to promote local solutions.”

Steve Fothergill, professor in the centre for regional economic and social research at Sheffield Hallam University, reminded the audience of the history of coal mines in the UK, a country which in 1913 saw a peak in coal production: 292 million tonnes per year, 1.1 million miners and over 3,000 mines. On the contrary, today, the UK counts less than 700 miners. Coal also represented 34 per cent of UK electricity supply in 2005, while in 2018 it was only 5 per cent. Therefore, as shown by the UK, it is possible for a large mature economy to move away from coal, electricity markets can be structured to deliver this shift, redundancies can be managed and rebuilding the economy of coalfields is possible event though it requires long time.

Time that currently we don’t have. We have nine years to reach the EU 2030 targets and less than two decades to honour the pledges of the Paris Agreement. And as it is, six countries have not yet set a date for phasing out coal by 2030 the latest, mostly from the CEE region: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Romania and Slovenia.

Is less than a decade enough for the CEE region to phase-out coal?

“We have to look at the scale of the coal phase-out,” professor Fothergill told CEENERGYNEWS. “With the possible exception of Poland, CEE countries have a smaller number of mines than the UK, so it is possible to address this issue in a shorter time than we did and also to address the loss of jobs. Less than a decade should be enough to at least develop some new job opportunities which will be available for the generations that are coming.”

For Tim Strangleman, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, also the industrialisation process took a long time in the UK, therefore it makes sense that phasing out coal required a long time as well.

“The energy transition could translate into a development of proper green jobs, for example with regards to carbon capture or new sources of heating,” he said, answering CEENERGYNEWS’ question. “Let’s not forget that miners are highly skilled people who can use very complex machines. What people will miss is not the physicality of doing that particular job, but the cultural and social aspect of it.”

Of course, there is no one single solution that can apply to every country and every region.

“There is nothing automatic in regeneration of coal mines, it was a hard political process and we haven’t received everything,” concluded professor Fothergill. “So my mind turns to the politicians which will face the same problems, maybe in a different scale, as the UK. “What was crucial in the context of the UK is that the local authorities in the former coal mining areas organised themselves to speak collectively.”

Something similar is already happening with the creation of the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA), a coalition of over 120 countries, local governments and companies working to accelerate the transition from unabated coal power generation. Also CEE countries are recognising the importance of working together towards a just transition: Hungary joined the Alliance earlier in March, after announcing its commitment to phasing out coal by 2030; then, in July, Poland’s region of Eastern Wielkopolska, which employs around 4,000 people became the first Polish member; and a few days later, also Croatia joined the PPCA even with only one active coal-fired power plant.

However, setting a date is a challenge that remains. Indeed, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), we are moving too slowly to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Setting an early date for a just and complete transition from coal to clean energy is the critical first step to reaching the long-term net-zero commitments.

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