An unusual coal convention

Weißwasser in Lusatia, Germany, is a very typical town when it comes to regions undergoing structural change. And very untypical. First off, it is a showcase of a former industrial centre that lost its industry. But secondly, it is a showcase of strong civic engagement guiding the city through the transition.

Therefore, it was a very fitting spot to convene the second Forum of Mayors on Just Transition. At the Forum, mayors and other stakeholders from Eastern and Southern European coal regions came together to discuss solutions for a Just Transition. The Forum was created as part of the “Regions Beyond Coal” project, led by the WWF offices in Bulgaria, Germany, Greece and Poland and funded by the German environmental ministry.

When Weißwasser’s mayor, Torsten Pötzsch, took part in the first Forum last fall in Greece, he immediately volunteered his home city to host the next meeting. That already says a lot about the proactive attitude he shows towards the structural change his region is facing. As a town within a coal region, “you need to rely on your own strength in economy, civil society, social involvement”, he told his guests in his opening remarks of the second Forum on September 12th this year.

Pötzsch certainly is relying on and fostering this strength: by engaging his citizens in community projects, giving out small funds for civic engagement, investing in the local hockey club that currently has a team playing in the 2nd national league. And by engaging in political networking events like the Forum of Mayors – to learn from each other but also to gain a stronger voice to be heard on the national and European level.

For most of the mayors present, this was one of the main reasons to participate in the Forum. “Just Transition has an European dimension – the EU must act to support regions, not leave them to their destiny”, Lefteris Ioannidis said, former mayor of Kozani in Greece and host of the first Forum. Not only must European and national decision-makers involve the local level in the transition process much more, the local level also needs to get more involved. 

Petros Kokkalis, member of the European Parliament, put the situation in a nutshell: “Just Transition needs to be a product of local agreement and democratic processes”, he said. “But in the climate crisis we are also producing violent transitions in other places of the world if we keep on using fossil fuels.”

With the necessity to end coal mining and coal-fired electricity generation becoming consensus, coal regions need to manage the transition to a more sustainable and climate-friendly future – and they can do it, if they get support, for example financially or in the form of infrastructure. That would create new perspectives not only for the miners, but also for young inhabitants wishing to stay or come back to their home town.

Lusatia is already a few steps ahead of many other regions: When a commission made up of policy-makers, scientists, representatives of unions and environmental organisations decided a coal phase-out in Germany at the beginning of the year, the three lignite coal regions in Germany were promised 40 billion Euros for the transition over the next 20 years.

Other regions in Europe can only dream of that. In Bulgaria, miners are laid off with no compensation, no social security in place, Elza Velichkova told her colleagues in Weißwasser. The mayor of Bobov Dol therefore appreciated the joining of force in the Forum, stating that she feels much less alone and abandoned than she normally does at home.

To make use of that accumulated power, the mayors took off to Berlin the next day to meet with German environmental minister Svenja Schulze, who agreed to help get their voices heard in Brussels. There, at a meeting of the Platform for Coal Regions in Transition in October, the mayors will now present their joined Declaration on Just Transition.

Torsten Pötzsch will be there once more to express the challenges and the chances for his region – and so many others in Europe.

By Lea Vranicar, WWF Germany