A just transition from coal demands a cross-regional sharing of benefits and costs

| 4th January 2018
A power station

The Belchatow power station in Poland is the biggest in Europe. 

The UK was among the countries which signed up to the Powering Past Coal alliance, launched at the Bonn climate talks. But with coal generating just two percent of power in August, meeting the target of 2025 is all to easy. For other European countries - Poland and Spain included - phasing out coal will be an even greater challenge. NATALIE BENNETT investigates.

Employment in the Polish coal industry has already plunged from a high of over 400,000 to around 100,000, which has had a big impact the main coal region, where, uncomfortably, the global climate talks will be held next year.

The world has to stop burning coal to produce electricity. We cannot afford the dirtiest fuel, killing with its air pollution, heating the planet with its carbon. That’s a reality that’s dawned in increasing numbers of countries, with the UK among them, who have signed up to the Powering Past Coal alliance, launched at the Bonn climate talks.

In Britain, the reality is this signature is more symbolic than practical. The government had already promised a phase out by 2025 (which could be a lot earlier). In August only 2 percent of electricity was produced through coal and its financial cost is increasingly ruling it out.

But the politics of coal are very different in Poland, where 80 percent of electricity is still produced with highly-polluting fuel, and the government is one of the last in the developed world still building new coal-fired stations.

Industry viability

It’s also not the case in Spain, where when I was in Madrid recently, Greenpeace was unfurling a banner showing the rightwing People’s Party leader Rajoy, embracing Alvaro Nadal, his energy minister and coal enthusiast.

Only about 10 percent of electricity is produced from coal, and some areas of traditional mining have effectively closed down, due to its low quality, but others continue, and the miners’ union is a significant political force.

In both places, I was recently at conferences where these issues came under close discussion.

In Poland, I was at the Industry Forum, an event held annually by the Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, to talk on a panel about solar energy. At a number of sessions on energy, I didn’t hear anybody outright supporting the government’s policy of all-out coal, but it was pretty well taken as a political given.

One of the strongest expressions of concern I heard was from a steel industry representative, who was worried that coal-fired electricity was already heading towards being - and in the future was certain to be - more expensive than renewables, which would affect Poland’s industry’s viability.

Financial benefit

And I learnt that while coal is often defended as a national energy security issue (meaning Warsaw doesn’t have to depend on Russia gas), in fact Poland is importing Russian coal, for both financial and supply reasons. And oddly, recently, even US coal.)

Employment in the coal industry has already plunged, from a high of over 400,000 to around 100,000, which has had a big impact the main coal region, where, uncomfortably, the global climate talks will be held next year. But, coal miners remain a potent political force, and the current government is almost defining its highly nationalist politics with coal.

I was in Spain with Equo, the Green Party which is part of the Podemos coalition in parliament, to share Britain’s experience of the Climate Change Act with those seeking to introduce similar legislation in Madrid.

I spoke of how a “just transition” – compensation and alternative ways of life – needs to be offered to regions affected by job and income losses in the move away from fossil fuels. (We also need to think about the structure of the new renewables economy.)

Also a focus was the way in which the opportunities of renewable energy, particularly solar and onshore wind, (and energy conservation) are shared around countries, with many regions having the opportunity to financially benefit.

Energy transition

Every city can have its own collection of small solar and battery installers, its own community of energy-efficiency providers, small businesses who provide jobs, use other local businesses from accountants to hardware wholesalers, and who employ people who put money back into the local economy.

Onshore wind too, can be developed locally, often by municipalities who can use the returns to support public services. (Bristol’s wind turbines are just one example of this.)  With electric cars taking off fast, there’s also the potential for income to households owning them from use as grid storage (Vehicle to Grid, VtG in the jargon).

So when we think about what this transition means, we’re seeing jobs and income that used to be concentrated in one part of nations, being replaced by a far more decentralised, equitable arrangement.

When we think about “just transition” the usual focus is on those who are losing out, but it is also important to focus on that side of the equation. While former coal regions make the case for significant extra funding, other regions with significant needs might understandably ask “why them and not us?”

If it is understood that this is a new sharing and spreading of the benefits of energy generation (as well as the greater resilience that is the other great advantaged of a decentralised system), then there’s likely to be far more political “buy-in” around nations where this energy transition can and should be understood as a great economic opportunity, rather than a threat.

It is a transition that can put the returns from energy generation in the hands of the many, helping every region of the country, so it’s both fair and reasonable that they should all make a contribution to those few regions that see a net loss from the change.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and a former leader of the Green Party. She tweets at @natalieben