The phasing-out of coal in Europe needs smart long-term strategies. It is important to focus on the balance between the economic, environmental and social impacts. A change to renewables can be part of the solution. Regional investment schemes and the involvement of the local population concerned in order to build public support are key to a successful transition.
On 7 April, the Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI) of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a high-level debate on "Industrial and energy transition – the industrial, economic and social consequences", bringing together energy experts from different coal-producing Member States, representatives of industry and trade unions and EESC members.
The discussions revealed the challenges that coal mining regions and states face when coal mines close. Germán Barrios García, President of the Economic and Social Council of Castilla y León, emphasised in his statement the importance of coal for some of Spain's regions, particularly Castilla y León. "It is important for Spain's electricity production; furthermore coal is also of strategic value as it is one of the few domestic energy sources", he said. While oil and gas sources would dry up within 41 and 54 years respectively, coal reserves would last significantly longer (an estimated 128 years). Coal mines were also an important employer in regions where no other job possibilities were available.
But coal mines were also causing damage to the environment and health and were detrimental to the agreed 2050 low-carbon goals.
Changes are needed to tackle economic, environmental and social issues equally
EESC member Pierre Jean Coulon referred to the major changes that had occurred in the course of history, saying that where there was no movement, there was no transition and without transition there was no development. "The actual challenge, therefore is, to seek a transition which respects the equilibrium between the economy, the environment and human beings." EESC member Janusz Pietkiewicz added that it was also necessary to transform consumers into active participants, and he referred to the related EESC opinion on prosumers (include link).
Janusz Piechocki, Mayor of Margonin in Poland, said that the transition from coal mines to renewable energy plants could work successfully. In his region, wind plants were now a source of funding for an increased public budget and for necessary major investments in infrastructure. Consequently, employment had increased and the environment had become cleaner.
Decisions need a longer-term perspective
Participants agreed with Dr Doerte Fouquet, Director of the European Renewable Energies Federation, that there was a need for the structured phasing-out of coal. "It is important to have a long-term political framework in order to guarantee planning and investment security and to include all stakeholders." Boris Linden, from the Innovationsregion Rheinisches Revier (IRR) in Germany, spoke about a competition that his institution had launched, which had generated 75 ideas for different projects.
For the areas concerned it was important to establish regional development plans, including proposals for what to do with the empty mines, industries that could be located in the region, and how to skill workers for new challenges. In order to avoid the depopulation of certain regions, investments in the regions should have priority rather than counting on worker mobility.
EESC member Dumitru Fornea put it in a nutshell: "We are not backward-looking. It is not about saving coal but saving our economy and jobs for our people. And this needs time, the support of all stakeholders, and communication with the people concerned."