A compilation of 4 documentaries on Just Transition

A documentary about Just Transition in Bulgaria, Poland, Greece and Germany

WWF Greece: The Switch

A documentary about Just Transition in Greece

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

WWF Germany: Germany’s farewell to coal

A documentary about Just Transition in Germany.

Clinging to coal: A sobering look into Bulgaria’s energy transition

This could be the story of a country that – faced with economic hardship – rises to the challenge and finds an improved way of life through innovation and sustainability. This could be the story of the underdog that proves everyone wrong.

Unfortunately, it is not. Not yet, anyway.

Instead, it is a story of a country that is stuck in outdated technology. And, making matters worse, a place where political mismanagement is hindering development benefitting the people living here.

The story takes place in southwest Bulgaria, in one of the coal regions of the Balkan country. Bulgaria has the lowest GDP in the entire European Union. And, unlike many other places or even the second coal region of the country, mine workers here don’t make good money. With a salary of about €350-400 a month, it is only a little higher than the Bulgarian average.

And still, the country clings to coal.

“It would be a crime if we can’t make use of these resources”, says Georgi Manolov, CEO of an open-cast mine in Pernik, the coal province close to the country’s capital Sofia. The statement stands in stark contrast to the facts, that Manolov isn’t shy to list: The market for coal in Bulgaria is small, new markets don’t come easy – especially after Greece broke away after the economic crisis. Today the mine only employs about 160 people, down from 2,000 in 1985. And funding is hard to get. “As soon as they hear coal they say no.”

Which should be no surprise, given the international necessity to end coal usage. Coal is the single biggest contributor to global heating. Continuing burning fossil fuels like coal means exacerbating the climate crisis, also bringing Europe more and more extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts and floods.

That is exactly why the national WWF offices in Bulgaria, Germany, Greece and Poland started the project “Regions Beyond Coal”, backed by the German environmental ministry, to foster just transition plans for coal regions in these countries. As part of this project, unionists, journalists, members of civil society initiatives and politicians from all four countries got together in the Bulgarian coal region of Pernik and Kyustendil provinces in June this year.

They witnessed a transition already underway – but one that was far from bringing a sustainable future for the benefits of people and nature.

“We slept through the time when we had to develop clean mining technologies”, says Georgi Stoyanchev, engineer at the Pernik mine. “The technology has to be changed to produce clean coal.” He says coal production has been interrupted in the past – by the discovery of petrol and atomic power – but it always came back. He figures coal can also come back after CO2 emission cuts.

The reality looks different. How desperate the coal situation really is – not even from a climate standpoint, but purely for economic reasons – is not only visible on the tour around the mine, where two or three workers sit under an archaic-looking construction in the middle of the small pit, the waste of the mine being deposited within sight, in a landfill and a pond.

It becomes even more visible at the Pernik power plant, one of the only two power plants in this coal region, built in 1951. In the last decade, it went from 1,200 workers to 450, as two coal-powered boilers were decommissioned. Another one was switched from coal to gas. They now produce an average of 100 MW of electricity and 460 MW of heat daily. The plans to keep operating currently cover the next 10 to 15 years. But here, at least, the director, Lyubomir Spasov, does not dream of clean coal. “It is clear to us that at a certain point we have to stop using coal. We have to shift to another fuel”, Spasov says.

He considers the CO2 prices. “If the price reaches €40, it will be extremely difficult for us.” He is planning to add more biofuels into the mix to reduce emissions, which are currently at about 200,000 tons of CO2 a year. They are already testing biomass and waste but those come with high-level environmental obligations. Another idea is to start a project to use solar heating of water to supply warm water to the people in the summer. But it has not started. While staff is declining, prices are rising and the almost 70-year-old building is showing more and more cracks, the urgency for change and innovation is lacking. The lack of institutional support from the Bulgarian government does not help: “I can’t say that the state is a particularly interested owner”, Spasov says.

Officially, in this region, private companies own the plants and mines in Bulgaria – although in the case of the Pernik power plant, the state also holds a fifth. Unofficially, however, the real owner of plants and mines in this country is a well-known energy oligarch on the Balkans living in Sofia. And this man, naturally, acts on his own behalf.

In the city of Bobov Dol in the province of Kyustendil, they experienced what this means the previous year. A mine was closed basically overnight, two miners, Ivaylo Antonov and Kiril Minev, tell the visitors of the WWF project. “The government said this is the reality, we don’t need you anymore, that was it”. Antonov and Minev, along with their colleagues, were left unemployed, compensated only with one month worth of salary. And because they were barely under the age of 45, they didn’t qualify for early retirement in case the mine closed.

From the 10,000 miners that were working in the mines here 30 years ago, today 500 remain. Only a handful open cast mines still exist – the underground ones that were also used for lignite mining here are all closed.

“The state allowed all this to happen”, the local authorities say and point out that they are limited in what they can do. The mayor, Elza Velichkova, complains: “I was the last one learning about the concession” – talking about the handing over of the mine from the state to a private owner on concession ten years ago. “If I knew what would happen I would have done something beforehand”, she says.

But now that it’s done, what is she doing for her city and the people living here? Searching for new investors, Velichkova answers repetitively. And here again lies a connection to many other regions in economic trouble, dreaming of the next big investor. The potential of existing structures that are worth nurturing and the dangers of new dependencies of a next big industry are too often overlooked in this scenario.

Even though there are small structures turning on a new path and worth nurturing even in Bobov Dol. The school that was formerly training miners – and close to shutting down synchronically to the mines – just installed solar panels. But not primarily to generate electricity – the output of the panels is too small for that – but to train the students in solar installation.

There is also a sewing factory producing shoes that came into Bobov Dol in the 1990s and still has capacity for more workers. The problem, however, is that former miners – mostly male – do not want to work there. “In general men are ashamed to work in such jobs”, the owner, Valeri Dimitrov, says. That is astonishing for two reasons: First, the job, even though it is a conveyor belt one, comes without the massive risks of an underground mine. And second: It is better paid, even though still way under EU average, as are most jobs in Bulgaria. Even so: “We have capacity for at least 100 more workers, but there are no applicants”, Dimitrov resumes.

The structural problems of the region go beyond coal. In addition to the little state interest and the ownership makeup, there also seems to be a lack of exploiting existing potential like the industrial ones, be it renewable energy or production of goods. With the stunning nature of the provinces, including national parks, the highest peak of the Balkan peninsula, ski resorts and geothermal spas, lots could be done in terms of sustainable tourism, as well. And agriculturally: With higher standards, the cherry fields in Shatrovo village, at the foot of the Rila mountains, could export to countries like Germany to increase revenue.

Money needs to flow in the improvement of infrastructure, one of the main obstacles for business here, says Alexsander Kolev, manager at Trelleborg Sealing Solutions, a company belonging to the Swedish Trelleborg group that has grown considerably in the last few years. He has a very clear opinion about the “old” industry in the region, meaning the coal plants and mines. “They are struggling because their business model is wrong”, he says. According to him, they are not seeking a way forward.

Within the WWF project, a study proposes a way forward. But to make it work, Bulgaria will need more initiative by local actors and the state. It will also need more development of already existing economic models and potentials of the region, rather than hoping for the next big investor to bring salvation. And to fully function, it will need structures untainted by political mismanagement. Especially for this last task, the international community, beginning at the EU level, must turn an eye on Bulgaria.

By Lea Vranicar, WWF

Infobox: Energy and climate in Bulgaria

Almost half of Bulgaria’s primary electricity generation of about 38,574,877 MWh a year comes from coal. Renewables provide around 18 percent of all electricity consumed, but 5 percent of that 18 is based on the fact that Bulgaria has reported old-fashion wood burning as renewable. The coal comes from the country itself, not from imports. Bulgaria does not have its own long-term climate goals yet, but supports those from the EU, that ask a 40 percent decrease of carbon emissions till 2030, a renewable energy share of 32 percent and a 32,5 percent increase in energy efficiency. The problem is the so-far missing implementation. Bulgaria will have to contribute its share to the European goals but is lacking long-term political visions and a real national strategy to make the country carbon neutral. The lack of direction creates financial losses and has people losing trust in the political system finding a manageable way to transform the energy sector. Further stagnancy would only worsen the situation, so immediate action is needed on all levels, from the government to local authorities, economic actors and civil society.

15 / 07 / 2019

Structural change Lausitzrunde (“Lusatian Round”) as European model