Activist: Poland’s ‘just transition’ declaration is just posturing

Greenpeace activists display a burning globe installation with the slogan 'Climate Crisis' in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, 11 December 2018. [EPA-EFE/FOCKE STRANGMANN]

The just transition declaration adopted at the COP24 in Poland sounds good but it is not connected to any kind of climate ambition or specific energy projects involving local communities, Alexandru Mustata told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Alexandru Mustata is a coordinator for just transition at CEE Bankwatch, a network of environmental groups in Central and Eastern Europe monitoring the activities of international financial institutions. He spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Senior Editor Pavol Szalai on the sidelines of the United Nation’s COP24 meeting in Katowice, Poland.

Poland introduced a “just transition declaration” at COP24, asking for a fair deal for coal workers and communities affected by the energy transition. Bankwatch Network called it  “smoke and mirrors”, why is that?

Poland has no plan to close down coal mines anytime in the future. The level of ambition needs to be higher, even though the energy sector relies more on coal than other countries in the region.

A declaration on just transition sounds good. But it is written in quite general terms and overall it is just posturing. There is no connection to climate ambition. How can you say it is a transition, if it doesn’t change anything in the energy sector?

The declaration proposes to develop economic alternatives in the region which is very good. For us, it is very important to involve all stakeholders when sketching out these alternatives. But at the same time, if there is no ambition to phase out coal, what will happen to the climate? What will happen to air quality, which is a very big problem in Poland?

It is just an illusion. It seems like on the horizon there is a just transition, but in reality, when you get there in 20 years the situation will still be the same.

The declaration is supported by several governments. Do they also think it is just an illusion?

If you look at the strategy of Central and Eastern European countries involved in the ‘Platform for Coal Regions in Transition’, you will see a similar situation. Some of them are more ambitious when it comes to supporting the transition away from coal, but they don’t have a phaseout date. Some countries are considering opening new coal power plants or mines.

Slovakia has a deadline in 2023 for the phaseout of coal subsidies.

This is very positive, but it is a date only to stop coal subsidies. It is not clear how long the mines will work after this date.

In Slovakia, there is underground lignite mining. It doesn’t take place anywhere else in Europe, because it is very uneconomical. Elsewhere in Europe, there are surface lignite mines as far as I know. In Slovakia, the lignite mines are supplying electricity production which has needed state aid for many years to survive. Otherwise, the mines would go out of business. Indeed, we can expect the production to cease when subsidies cease.

I think Slovakia should send a strong message by designing a strategy in which it will no longer rely on coal after 2023. Slovakia should do it as quickly as possible, but 2023 seems like a reasonable time.

You said other countries in the platform are in pretty much the same situation as Poland, meaning they do not have a plan for phasing out coal. Considering Slovakia has a date 2023 for phasing out coal subsidies, would you say it is actually one of the most advanced countries in the platform?

Yes, it is. But it is quite easy for Slovakia because other countries don’t have the appropriate level of ambition. There is also another coal power plant in eastern Slovakia – importing coal from Ukraine – that will not be affected by the end of the subsidies.

From this point of view, it is similar as elsewhere. They are stopping subsidies, but they don’t have a plan to phase out coal. This is why we are pushing for a European solution, not only national. When Slovakia is importing coal from Ukraine and some countries even from Columbia or South Africa, the problem remains.

Slovakia considers exiting coal in 2023, Sefcovic eyes geothermal energy

While Energy Union boss Maroš Šefčovič is making a case for a transition to geothermal energy in the Upper Nitra region of Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico still believes in the future of lignite mining. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

What is the progress in other Eastern European states you follow?

Despite the lack of ambition to phase out coal, the attempts to imagine alternatives for coal regions are appearing in more and more places. The process started out bad in Slovakia for example, but now it is much better. In the beginning, the mayor of Prievidza (centre of the coal region horná Nitra) started consultations about the alternatives, but the central government sent a list of different transition projects to be financed through this coal platform, ignoring her work. It has changed since and the government is now supporting the consultations. There is an improvement.

In the Czech Republic, the RE:START programme can be improved, but it is still a positive example of inclusive consultation. The country not doing so well is Poland which has submitted the list of projects directly from the central level. It is not in line with the partnership principle enshrined in European law to ensure that decision-making about spending EU funds includes relevant local actors.

It is the same in Romania. We had meetings with the ministry in charge of European funding, which selects the projects, and with Regional Policy Commissioner Corina Crețu, but civil society was not allowed to participate. NGOs weren’t allowed in the room where the meeting was held.

Why is it important to involve civil society and local stakeholders if it’s an issue of European importance?

I think the purpose of these projects is to help regions to have a transition away from the coal. If you will have projects designed in Brussels or in the capitals, the chances are high they will not reflect the needs and solutions which are best for the regions.

According to a study that analysed the transition not only in Europe but all over the world, projects with participation of local stakeholders throughout the process had much better results than the ones designed only by central governments.

Which countries or regions in Europe do you see as the best example of just transition?

So far there are none. We have seen some positives steps taken in Germany. Slovakia and the Czech Republic are also on a good trajectory. On the other hand, we saw some very bad in the United Kingdom. When they closed certain mines, it was a social and economic disaster.

Most of the transition projects in the Slovak plan for the phaseout of coal subsidies have been proposed by the mining company. Is it good to support only the projects of the mining company even though it will be most impacted?

If the mining company is able to provide solutions agreed by the community it is excellent and it should be supported. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this is the case. There is also a competition problem.

Beyond the legal principle of partnership, solutions are simply best known by people who live in the region. It is not only the coal company but also the community, businesses and associations that have been there for many years. A plan designed without their participation will not bring enough diversification for the region in the transition.

In Central Europe, activists fight for ‘just transition’ away from coal

As Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic start phasing out coal, campaigners argue that all actors – including small entrepreneurs, communities and civil society – must be part of the process.

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