Europe’s Transition towards a Net Zero Emission Economy should not happen at the Expense of its Coal Regions, Nature and People | WWF
Europe’s Transition towards a Net Zero Emission Economy should not happen at the Expense of its Coal Regions, Nature and People

Posted on 20 February 2020

In Southwest Bulgaria, no planning is in place and the region is being left behind.
19 February 2020 (Brussels) – A new WWF report Just Transition to Climate Neutrality – Doing Right by the Regions, shows that while Europe’s coal regions may be diverse and far apart, there are steps that are common and essential to all for a socially just transition away from coal. The report and accompanying a short film was launched at WWF’s just transition event in Brussels on 19 February. The new report comes as the EU prepares to discuss leveraging EUR100 billion as a “Just Transition Mechanism” to help regions achieve climate-neutrality.
WWF analysed coal regions in the Ruhr Region of Germany, Western Macedonia in Greece, Silesia in Poland, and the South West region of Bulgaria. These regions are at different stages of the transition - coal mining phase-out in the Ruhr had been planned for decades, whereas in South West Bulgaria, no planning is in place and the region is being left behind. WWF concluded that setting a deadline for ending coal, targeted financial support, and giving everyone their say is crucial for a sustainable economic regional shift towards climate neutrality.
Following the report’s policy recommendations can help ensure a successful, socially responsible and sustainable move to net zero carbon emissions across Europe’s coal regions.
 “Coal regions have contributed to Europe’s prosperity for decades. We need to make sure Europe’s transition towards a net zero emissions economy does not happen at the expense of these regions. Local and national authorities have a key role to play and need to talk to those affected and ensure the right financial and policy support is there to allow a smooth path to a net zero emissions economy based on sustainable jobs for all.” - Juliette de Grandpré, Senior Policy Adviser, WWF Germany
The launch of the report in Brussels was attended by, among others, a Bulgarian delegation of 2 mayors, a trade union representative, the chairwoman of the board of the Bobov Dol Thermal Power Plant, and the association of municipalities in support of the initiative.

Coal production in the Southwest Bulgaria began to decline in the 1980s because of the depletion of resources. As early as the 1970s, Bulgaria started to develop its other lignite region in the southeast. The underground brown coal mines were closed down at the end of 2018, and the number of employees in the sector is steadily decreasing. However, no investments are being made to diversify the local economy and the industry sector has not been modernised for decades. A successful energy transition in Southwest Bulgaria requires the region to develop sustainable economic activities. Reskilling the workforce is a major tool for enhancing and retaining labour force and fighting low income and unemployment in the region.

"If we do not want the energy transition to lead Bulgaria into a debt crisis like in Greece, or to bring a sharp increase in electricity prices for all consumers, then the responsible institutions and politicians in the country should stop misleading the people in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria (the biggest coal region ) that coal has NO future, Instead, they should initiate a targeted sustainable economic development programme in that region as soon as possible; before the closure of the facilities there. This cannot happen if we do not know what year coal will be phased-out or when the closure of thermal power plants is planned. More importantly, what will we replace coal with - both in terms of economic activities and energy supply? - Georgi Stefanov, Head of Climate and Energy Practice at WWF Bulgaria.
The urgent need to help regions move to clean sectors is reflected in the European Commission’s proposal for a Just Transition Mechanism in January 2020. The financial mechanism would support workers and their communities in regions whose economies are based on carbon-intensive activities like coal mining. It consists of three pillars: a grant-giving pillar (the €7.5 billion Just Transition Fund), a pillar to leverage private funds (the InvestEU guarantee) and a public sector loan facility. Most of the aspirational €100 billion, however, will need to be leveraged through the private sector. Co-financing from the cohesion policy also makes up a significant part.
WWF’s recommendations:
  • Set a phase-out date for coal as early as possible, followed by an agreed and consensual, timeline based transition strategy. Setting a clear timeline with a binding and ambitious phase-out date for coal provides certainty to investors; avoiding the creation of stranded assets and lowering the overall costs of the transition.
  • Ensure timelines and strategies are based on high-quality, quantitative analysis, guided by a commitment to sustainability. To be meaningful, effective and have the greatest chance of success, just transition strategies and plans should be informed by quantified, transparent and objective analysis. They should also be formulated with the aim to achieve true environmental sustainability in order to ensure that the transition is durable.
  • Ensure adequate, targeted financial and policy support for the transition using EU as well as national funds. The transition requires upfront investment, which cannot always be made by investors alone. Long-term policy support and frameworks, supported by dedicated public financing are necessary to leverage the sustained investment required for a just and sustainable transition.
  • Aim for real economic diversification. A diverse collection of smaller businesses and industries provides resilience to economic change, with big economic changes having a lower impact on overall employment and the GDP. Diversification should be on the basis of environmental sustainability to ensure it will deliver long-term, quality jobs.
  • Engage all stakeholders in an ongoing process, especially at the local level. The involvement of local stakeholders can determine whether the transition succeeds or whether it is delayed, resisted and derailed. Local stakeholders and communities are more likely to buy into the strategies and will support their implementation if they are the driving force behind developing them. Local communities have unrivalled insight into their needs and desires, even if on their own they do not have the resources or expertise to actualise them. Failing to involve local communities will risk missing essential information into their needs, desires and strengths and can drive resistance to change.
Getting the just transition right in our coal mining regions is one of the biggest challenges – and opportunities – of the next decade. Europe must prove its commitment to social justice by following these recommendations - from committing to rapidly end coal, to providing financial support - to ensure we all move together to climate neutrality before mid-century.” - Imke Lübbeke, Head of Climate and Energy, WWF European Policy Office

The Just Transition Project
Local authorities and leaders from 40 regions have been mobilising themselves to ensure a just transition. In September 2018, a first “Forum of Mayors on Just Transition” took place in Kozani, Greece. This is a bottom-up initiative - initially involving representatives from six Member States - and aims to enable the sharing of experience and knowledge between those affected by the transformation. This was followed by a second Forum in September 2019 hosted by the mayor of Weißwasser, Germany at which a Declaration was signed by over 61 mayors calling for EU support, underlining the mayors’ commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change, and asking for support to make just transition a reality.
For more information:
Georgi Stefanov
Climate and Energy Practice Lead,
Tel: +359 889 517 976 |
The other three regions in WWF’s report:
The Ruhr in Germany
Germany’s coal region ‘par excellence’, the sector employed 600,000 people at its peak in the 1950s. (The coal also made the air so bad people were advised not to hang their washing outside.) But then as cheaper coal from outside Europe started to take over, the federal government set up a ‘Ruhr Development Programme (EPR) in 1968 for a socially responsible reduction of coal jobs. This was followed by regional funding programmes. The programmes focused on infrastructure and promotion of the scientific landscape, as well as the conversion of former industrial facilities into accommodation and cultural centres, such as the Zollverein in Essen, which is today a World Cultural Heritage Site. In 2007, the German Government decided to phase out subsidies and close the last hard coal mine by 2018. This officially sealed the end of hard coal mining in Germany.
Western Macedonia in Greece
Since the mid-1950s, lignite (brown coal) mining has been the main economic activity in the area. Unemployment - already high at 28% - is expected to skyrocket due to the anticipated decommissioning of existing lignite plants. The Greek Prime Minister recently announced the retirement of all lignite plants by 2028 at the latest. This will be hugely beneficial for public health, the environment and the climate (lignite is responsible for 34% of Greek greenhouse gas emissions). However, it will pose a challenge for the local societies and regional economy if the transition to a sustainable economy is not well designed.
Silesia in Poland
Upper Silesia is the biggest hard coal region in Europe, with over 20 active mines and 72,000 direct jobs. However, a drastic decline in hard coal extraction is coming for economic reasons - Poland increasingly imports cheaper Russian coal. Cultural attachment to the coal legacy is strong: politicians promise to “save” Silesian coal mining to win votes. The challenge in Upper Silesia is about a lack of proper long-term planning, social dialogue and a commitment to phase out coal. Since approximately 50,000 permanent jobs in the region will be gone within a decade, miners and people employed in the coal sector require a special focus. Failure to address the cultural and social position of coal will have an impact on Poland’s energy transformation and the region’s economy. It will also have severe consequences for coal-mining municipalities and livelihoods of miners and their families
Bobov dol Thermal Power Plant, Bulgaria
© WWF-Bulgaria
Bela Voda Open Mine, Bulgaria. No investments are being made to diversify the local economy.
© WWF-Bulgaria
A successful energy transition in Southwest Bulgaria requires the region to develop sustainable economic activities.
© WWF-Bulgaria