Lack of coal phase-out commitments in Eastern Europe jeopardises just transition

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The coal-fired power station near Opatovice nad Labem, East Bohemia, Czech Republic [FILIP SINGER / EPA-EFE]

Unambitious coal phase-out policies in central and eastern Europe threaten the just transition in the region and the European Commission should only accept plans that use the just transition fund to develop and diversify local economies for a greener future, writes Alexandru Mustață.

Alexandru Mustață is the just transition coordinator at the central and eastern European Bankwatch network.

In order to access the €17.5 billion Just Transition Fund, decision-makers from carbon-intensive regions across the EU and especially in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are rushing to finalise their Territorial Just Transition Plans.

The documents are expected to outline a vision of a future without coal and other polluting industries, showing how they will use European money to build a decarbonised economy. They should also provide details on subjects for which regional authorities have little, if any, power, such as explaining from where greenhouse gas emission reductions will come.

Even progressive regions will find this task challenging, as usually the only document to rely on for guidance is the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP). NECPs were designed during the past two years and are supposed to show what measures countries will take in order to reach their 2030 climate targets.

But most of these plans are not ambitious enough – and many in CEE do not foresee a coal phase-out date.

Unexpected news came last week from Romania, where the country’s Recovery and Resilience Plan promised a coal phase-out by 2032. A reason for celebration for climate campaigners, for sure, who were however still quick to point out that the phase-out can and should happen much earlier – well before 2030.

In a country of 20 million, there are 16,000 workers employed in the coal sector, which generates approximately 20% of the country’s power – so both solutions for the energy sector and for employment could be found earlier than a decade. However, neither are explained in the document.

For coal regions, the vague mention of a phase-out doesn’t help with designing their territorial plans, as it doesn’t specify when each individual power plant will shut down. It also comes at a late stage in the process, as most countries are due to submit their first version of the plans to the European Commission in June.

Other countries in the region are not in a significantly different situation. Much discussion is taking place these days about the lawsuit between the Czech Republic and Poland, the former trying to stop the latter’s Turów coal mine.

Recently, Poland tried to solve the issue by promising to spend over €40 million on reducing the mine’s impact on local groundwater. But the project is much costlier: the region will also lose access to the Just Transition Fund as it fails to prove a path to transition.

The Commission highlighted that other sources of financing remain available – little consolation for a country that fought to get the lion’s share, approximately €2 billion, from the Just Transition Fund.

The plaintiff in the Turów case doesn’t stand much better: the industry-dominated Czech coal commission reached a similar conclusion like the one it was modelled after, in Germany, suggesting 2038 for a phase-out date.

But even the pro-fossils government realised that relying on coal for another 17 years is wishful thinking, so it asked the body to come up with an earlier date.

A Transformation Platform was set up to design the just transition plans in the Czech Republic, made up of 39 members from various fields. But those outside this platform, especially people in coal regions, had few chances to influence the plan – and many still don’t understand what the Fund can do.

Although coal regions are not the only potential beneficiaries, the Fund was set up with them in mind in the first place, as this fossil fuel must be eliminated quickly from the energy systems in order to meet climate commitments, followed closely by fossil gas.

If Romania and the Czech Republic’s phase-out dates are not ambitious enough, Poland doesn’t even have one – apart from an agreement with miners to shut down the mines in 2049, in clear contradiction with the 2050 climate neutrality goal.

It is high time for the few governments in the EU which haven’t yet decided on a phase-out date to design a strategy for a gradual yet swift closure of coal mines and power plants.

The Just Transition Fund, together with the other, much larger European funding instruments like the Cohesion Policy or the Resilience and Recovery Facility, represent a great opportunity to replace the jobs that will be lost in a sustainable manner.

The European Commission, too, has a key role to play: it must only accept those plans that contribute to the redevelopment and diversification of the local economy.

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