A just transition is already happening in Eastern Wielkopolska

Compared to other coal regions in Poland and even in the whole EU, Eastern Wielkopolska looks extremely ambitious with its plan to move away from coal by 2030. However, energy transformation and decarbonization of the economy to achieve climate neutrality in 2050 requires comprehensive actions. Involving citizens and local communities is crucial to the success of this process and building public acceptance for the transition away from coal. WWF Poland presents recommendations on how to make a just transition and ensure its financing in a new report prepared by Instrat Foundation.

The end of lignite opencasts, the beginning of a new stage

The Konin sub-region (Eastern Wielkopolska) has been designated by the European Commission as one of the coal regions that will receive support under the Just Transition Fund (JTF). This is a great opportunity for the whole of Eastern Wielkopolska, which is in a much worse economic condition than the rest of the voivodeship, especially in terms of unemployment and wage levels. The largest employer and at the same time the biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the region is currently GK ZE PAK. In October 2020 ZE PAK published its new strategy, radically changing the directions of its development. Among other things, it declared to abandon the construction of new lignite opencast mines and to gradually close the existing ones as well as to close coal-fired power plants by 2030. However, the transition away from coal must not come at the expense of local communities. In order to better develop effective solutions for a safe future of the region and its inhabitants, WWF Poland Foundation commissioned the development of a detailed diagnosis of the situation in terms of transformation of the labor market, drought and hydrological conditions and changes in the energy mix until 2030. On this basis two scenarios of employment structure and land reclamation were created, which can be found in the report “Just Transition in Eastern Wielkopolska – diagnosis and guidelines“.

– Eastern Wielkopolska has a chance to define its new identity, the one after coal. We want to support the regions and communities in this process, that’s why we decided to publish the report, which comprehensively diagnoses the challenges and indicates the decision-makers which investments and changes in law are needed to ensure secure future for the inhabitants – says Marta Anczewska, a specialist on Just Transition, Coordinator of the Regions beyond Coal project in Poland at the WWF Poland Foundation.

Michał Hetmanski, the co-author of the report and the president of Instrat Foundation talks about the participatory dimension of the transformation – Transition from coal is inevitable in the light of the EU climate policy and we have to prepare for it in a complex way. But this process of preparation must take into account the needs of all participants, and that is why the open format of social consultations in Eastern Wielkopolska is something unprecedented on a national scale. Even the largest possible funds from the EU and national funds for the transformation will not compensate for the lack of efficiency.

ZE PAK – the main actor in the region

The rate of downsizing at ZE PAK CG as a result of the winding down of lignite mines and power plants will be faster than the rate of natural retirement of employees. By the end of coal mining operations, i.e. by 2030, only 55% of the concern’s employees will have acquired pension rights. Therefore, the company and the authorities of the subregion are faced with the challenge of what to do with the remaining 45% of the total workforce and how to ensure the financing and implementation of programs for upgrading and retraining of the corporation’s employees, but also programs for reclamation of post-mining areas. The authors of the report recommend that the Just Transition Fund specifically support investments aimed at these challenges.

Impulse for transformation – Just Transition Fund 

According to the report, JTF funds should specifically support labor market transformation and prioritize investments that are in line with the European Green Deal in order to leverage existing workforce competencies and capitalize on the growing demand for technologies and products in the low-carbon economy. It is necessary to utilize the potential of both public and private labor market institutions. In particular, programs targeting ZE PAK employees should be based on a contracted outcome – successful employment of a given employee and retention in a given job. An important challenge is to adapt the skills of the outgoing lignite workers so that they can find employment in the newly emerging RES industry. Otherwise, vacancies will be filled by immigrant workers from other parts of Wielkopolska voivodeship, which will result in a situation where despite an increase in the number of people employed by local companies, unemployment will increase at the same time. The total potential of new jobs, which can be generated as a result of investments in the energy sector, depending on the scenario, is between 12 thousand and 22 thousand jobs, as estimated by the authors of the report.

Protecting the climate without leaving anyone behind

As the Instrat Foundation experts point out, further analysis is needed on the directions of support for ZE PAK employees and the potential for creating new jobs in other sectors of the green economy, i.e. energy efficiency, the RES value chain, including the hydrogen economy. In order to prepare local communities well for the transformation that will take place over the next 5-10 years, it is also necessary to deepen the knowledge and plan for the reclamation of post-mining areas so that e.g. municipalities can adapt their investments to the coming decrease in tax revenues from the mines.

It is also a priority to speed up the reclamation of existing opencast mines using Warta water and to restore groundwater resources. At the same time the reclamation of pits in KWB Bełchatów, which is also located in the Warta river basin and will use the Warta river resources, should be taken into account. Simultaneous restoration of the near-surface aquifer also requires actions conducive to slowing down the outflow and increasing water retention in the region. According to the report, it is also advisable to recultivate as much post-mining land as possible in the direction of forest, using native tree species, and to recreate the diversified relief of the area. Efforts should also be made to accelerate the restoration of organic soil.

About the project

The report “Just Transition in Eastern Wielkopolska – Diagnosis and Guidelines” was prepared for the WWF Poland Foundation as part of the project “Regions and Municipalities for a Just Transition” of the European Climate Protection Initiative (EUKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).