A “coal curtain” is the new Iron Curtain Protest at the UN Climate Talks, Katowice (Poland)

A “coal curtain” is the new Iron Curtain

The European Union’s goal to become climate neutral by 2050 needs joint effort to decarbonise its power sector. Yet, a “coal curtain” still seem to divide West and East, as most Eastern countries show hesitation or opposition when it comes to phasing out coal. The Polish presidency of the UN Climate Talks held in Katowice in December 2018 put spotlight on the topic of “just transition” to a clean economy, focusing on rights of workers in the coal industry. Civil society representatives warned that no time is left to delay action on mitigating climate change and air pollution.

Leading climate action

Only a couple of days before the UN Climate Talks (COP24) the EU announced its long-term strategy aiming to become the first major “climate neutral” economy by 2050. Climate neutrality means countries’ emissions are balanced by methods of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere like by planting of new forests or by using carbon capture technologies which bury carbon dioxide underground. Reaching net-zero emissions globally as soon as possible is key to keep global warming under 1.5 °C by the end of this century, scientists warned in their latest climate report.

Silent protest at the UN Climate Talks, Katowice (Poland). Photo: BlueLink.info

To be in line with the UN Climate Agreement adopted in Paris 3 years ago, Europe and OECD countries need to be coal-power-free by 2030 (or earlier, depending on the country) according to the Europe Beyond Coal, an alliance of civil society groups. This fact is also acknowledged by the governments that have signed on to the Powering Past Coal Alliance, bringing together a diverse range of governments, businesses and organisations that commit to the phase-out of coal power. European countries like UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Austria and Scandinavian countries have already signed the declaration, however none from the Central and Eastern European region.

A new-old divide

While Western Europe reduces its coal usage, the former Soviet bloc nations are moving in the opposite direction, as the Bloomberg Business highlighted the divide between the two regions calling it a “coal curtain”. Those most reliant on coal in the EU are Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. The Polish Energy Ministry stated that Poland – a country where around 80% of energy comes from coal – opposes increasing the EU emission reduction targets as it would have a negative effect on the electricity sector and the Polish economy as a whole. Though ageing coal power plants are facing a big challenge to meet air pollution requirements, five new units are under construction in Poland.

Electricity production from coal sources (% of total) Source: World Bank

Bulgaria – with 46% of energy from coal – still does not have a long-term climate and energy strategy and opposed any revision of EU emission targets at the UN climate summit. To assure that Bulgaria would not support any measures that would lead to cuts in the coal industry hundreds of miners and thermal power plant employees protested in Sofia last November. Georgi Stefanov, Chief Climate and Energy Expert at WWF Bulgaria believes that it is time to start meaningful conversation on the modernisation of the energy industry and to prepare the “just transition”. It seems that currently “Bulgaria is even worse than the U.S. or other coal dependent country, because no one [other country] really say that coal will last forever”, told Stefanov.

Likewise, there are significant pollution control challenges for ageing power plants in the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. Though it seems they are recognising the need for transition to a cleaner energy source. As the Romanian mining sector is facing significant economic pressures, in 2018, the energy minister publicly stated for the first time that Romania will have to start thinking about shifting away from coal by 2040. In 2017 Slovakia – with its relatively limited coal power plant capacity – has started the discussion on the phase-out with the target year 2023, although this has not yet been spelt out in national policy, states the Europe Beyond Coal.

Hungary – with 19% of energy coming from coal – is also considering closing the lignite-fired units of the number one carbon dioxide emitter power plant of the country by 2030. It is a surprisingly ambitious step as the Visegrád Group – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – tend to stick together in resisting measures that would price out coal. Hungary’s move is motivated by the rising EU carbon prices and the fact that the Mátra power plant already has concepts for low-carbon projects, as Barbara Botos, deputy secretary of state for climate explained.

Just transition: just, but to whom?

The discussion on phasing out coal is extremely hard, especially in countries where power generation heavily relies on coal and in regions where high percentage of population works in the mines and heat power plants – often provided with no employment alternatives.

To avoid shock transition as it happened in Eastern Europe in the 90s, the shift away from coal has to be well-prepared and facilitated “in a way that leaves no-one behind”. According to a paper by Bankwatch Network “just transition” integrates early planning, inclusivity, clear decision, adequate funding, adequate re-skilling and improving quality of life. The transition process should involve in the dialogue and decision-making everyone affected, including workers, local authorities, businesses, civil society, trade unions, educational entities and other actors.

Protest at the UN Climate Talks, Katowice (Poland). Photo: BlueLilnk.info

Ensuring inclusivity was one of the reasons why Katowice, one of the former mining centres of Poland, was chosen to host 2018’s climate summit. “People most affected by change should be invited to the conversation”, said Michał Kurtyka, the president of COP24. The Polish presidency prepared a political declaration on “just transition”, promising not to leave the workers of the coal industry behind while building a clean economy. Though, questions arose from the civil society: to whom is it just? How about those who suffer from the air pollution coming from the coal power plants? Doesn’t it only serve to delay real action on mitigating climate change?

Dirty energy, dirty air

According to the World Health Organization, 33 of the 50 towns with the most polluted air in the EU are in Poland, and residents often suffer from heavy smog. Discussing “just transition” in the Polish reality Joanna Flisowska from Climate Action Network Europe argued that “it’s absolutely crucial to consider the just transition from the angle of workers, but we also need to consider it from the perspective of those who have been suffering from the health impact of coal.”

Population exposure to atmospheric particulate matter. Source: European Environment Agency, Air Quality in Europe – 2018 report

The divide between the western parts of Europe and the rest of the continent can also be seen in terms of air quality as Julian Popov, a fellow at the European Climate Foundation and the former environment minister of Bulgaria highlighted it in a tweet, referring also to the “coal curtain”. Air quality data from the European Environment Agency shows that those living in Eastern Europe and the Balkans are exposed to higher levels of atmospheric particulate matter. These microscopic size particles (so-called PM10 and PM2.5) cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as well as are linked to premature death. Their main source is the burning of coal and wood, soot from incomplete combustion in diesel engines, or waste incineration.

Reducing coal usage is not only one of the most cost-effective methods to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions but also provides significant benefits in terms of air quality, health and energy security. Proposals to coal exit strategy for the EU and revitalization plans for former coal regions do already exist.

Borislav Sandov, co-chair of the Bulgarian Greens. Photo: BlueLink.info

“In Bulgaria the main coal regions are in a very good strategic location from the perspective of international trade lines, they are in European corridors, they are close to [thermal] baths and big cities with a good potential for economical diversification, so they are not isolated”, said Borislav Sandov, co-chair of the Bulgarian Greens party. “There are plenty of alternatives, economical and social, for a just transition that could lead to economical growth and prosperity for the population, instead of just losing jobs or migrating”, added Sandov. Civil representatives discussing just transition at the climate summit agreed that this is a matter of good governance and educating, informing the people.