Energy transformation. What is the future of coal in Bulgaria?

WWF has raised the issue about Just transition from coal to low-carbon energy

The first of its kind round table and a public debate on Just transition was held at the Representation of the European Commission in Sofia. The event was organized jointly by environmental protection organization WWF and the environmental association “Za Zemyata” under the project titled Just Transition in Eastern and Southern Europe implemented by WWF in Germany, Poland, Greece and Bulgaria.

Coalenergy at a high cost

“Coal is expensive in both financial and environmental terms. Coal accounts for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. That is why coal is one of the biggest threats facing our global climate system. The UN Environment Programme has recently announced that the use of fossil fuels cost in excess of 3.6 trillion USD in 2010. At the same time the use of coal threatens fresh water supplies, releases carbon and sulphur dioxide and heavy metals that cause acid rains, health issues and global warming”, Conservation Director of WWF Bulgaria Iain Jackson commented.

It raises concerns that coal consumption has increased by 45% across the world since 2003 onwards, that is much more than oil or gas. Forecasts show that carbon emissions will continue to grow slightly until 2035-2040 and the biggest effort in the coming decade will go into phasing-out coal as a primary energy source and almost full decommissioning of coal in all countries by the middle of the century. Against this backdrop WWF has become aware of the urgent necessity of just transition to sustainable alternatives for energy generation to keep global temperature increase up to 2°C of pre-industrial levels.

The need of just transition

The EU commitments under the Paris Agreement show much greater ambitions and the efforts of the governments should be focused elsewhere, i.e. on serious cutting of the use of coal in the energy mix of the countries by 2050. The latter in turn requires the use of a comprehensive approach for just transition in all 41 coal regions of Europe. This approach should provide adequate alternatives to mitigate negative consequences for local communities and workers in coal mining and coal-fueled thermal power plants. At the same time this approach should help the structural transition towards sustainable local economy and the overcoming of the damages caused by decades of intensive mining and environmental pollution.

 “Climate change is a fact. It also poses a risk to people, economies, biodiversity and ecosystems. All of us are victims including the countries from the rich club”, Deputy Minister of Environment and Water Atanaska Nikolova said. “Just transition is not a utopia, it is necessary. Policies must and can promote just transition to avoid structural failures and social problems. Fair transition is an opportunity for both the EU and Bulgaria. This is a challenge which unites and not divides”. Deputy Minister Nikolova also said that some of the revenues generated under the European Emissions Trading Scheme must be used for the purposes of just transition.

However, to be successful a project needs to prompt serious and in-depth interest in all the stakeholders, from trade unions and representatives of the civil sector and businesses to local, national and European institutions. 

What is unique about this forum?

The public debate provided us with an invaluable opportunity to set the beginning of a constructive dialogue among the representatives of all key sectors. The issues of just transition were put forward for the first time in the public domain in Bulgaria bringing together in one place all the stakeholders. The forum brought on the same table the responsible Deputy Ministers from the Ministry of Environment and Water, Ministry of Energy and Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the Heads of the Bulgarian Industrial Association and trade union organizations Confederation of Labour “Podkrepa” and Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Bulgaria (CITUB), the National Association of Municipalities and experts from the European Trade Union Institute and European Business Confederation.

“We can be sure that if all the stakeholders are not included in the just transition, it would fail”, Leon de Graaf, an adviser for environmental and climate policy of the European Business Confederation commented. “Just transition is undoubtedly an excellent opportunity for businesses, workers and governments to approach the European Commission and explain what they need. This is one of the major challenges facing Bulgaria as well”.

Just transition in Bulgaria

Just transition was discussed during the roundtable as part of European climate and energy goals and policies until 2030 as well as part of the opportunities for better and sustainable economic development of Bulgaria. The chief expert of Climate and Energy Programme of WWF Georgi Stefanov presented at the roundtable the draft of the first plan for just transition for the region of Southwestern Bulgaria in the context of the upcoming closing of the mines in Bobov Dol.

“Following the closing of the last two underground mines in Bobov Dol I no longer sit in a chair, I am standing at the stake. All of a sudden 1500 people are made redundant in a developed area where the unemployment rate was reduced to minimum”, the mayor of Bobov Dol Elza Velichkova said. “There is no sufficient number of children for a first-grade class and transportation companies stopped working because they do not have any passengers to transport. Bobov Dol has more than enough available workforce which has been made available not out of their own will”.

“The labour market is changing all the time. The effects of globalization and the world of technology result in a loss of millions of jobs every year”, Béla Galgóczi, senior researcher at Economic, Employment and Social Policies Department with the European Trade Union Institute said. “Bulgaria is one of the affected countries. We must respond to this situation. We need to have a just transition”.

“Transition towards zero emissions will be accepted by everyone only provided that it takes place together with an adequate economic and social model”, Ivan Kokalov, PhD,  Deputy Chairperson of CITUB assured. “A European road map for a just transition of the workers from the most affected areas will be developed. Southeastern Europe has been undoubtedly one of the hotspots for a just transition”.

“Just transition for us is a transition from employment to employment. It is supposed to include training and retraining of the workforce”, Elka Dimitrova, Head of Directorate at the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy said. “With this forum we set an example to Europe for a very active and fruitful partnership”.

What are the options ahead?

A team of scientists from Sofia University did research based on which a plan for the development of Southwestern Bulgaria following the closing of the mining industry would be drafted. The plan includes three scenarios.

“The first scenario provides for keeping the status quo which would cost in excess of 2 billion BGN. The second scenario includes an alternative growth, attracting active people to give the necessary impetus by developing businesses based on the competitive advantages of the region. The third scenario envisages attracting a large company to assume the social burden of this territory”, Associated Professor Kosyo Stoychev, PhD, from Sofia University said.

The public debate was held a couple of days after the publication of the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepared for three years. The document developed by more than 90 experts and endorsed by 195 governments warns that global temperature increase by 1.5 degrees might be a fact as early as 2030. Scientists have blown the whistle on the critical need of taking urgent measures in this respect because neglecting the issue will take undoubted toll on our health, livelihood, security and economic growth.