Low-carbon transition in European carbon-intensive regions: mission impossible or indispensability?

The role of carbon-intensive regions in the EU

Coal production has been in decline in the EU in recent years; production decreased by over 30% between 2000 and 2015. However, unlike renewables, solid fossil fuel production is not evenly distributed on the continent. Coal is mined in more than 40 EU regions across 12 Member States and it is burnt in over 200 power plants. Approximately a quarter of a million Europeans are directly employed in the coal mining and coal power sector. In terms of employment, Silesia – located in southern Poland – is the largest coal-based region in the EU.

The coal path of Silesia – widening the road or striving for a cul-de-sac

Poland is the largest European coal-based economy with hard coal being the main energy resource, although its share has been decreasing. The latest governmental draft on “Energy Policy for Poland till 2040” assumes a 60% share of coal in the energy mix in 2040 as well as an increase in energy generation from offshore wind farms and the replacement of lignite by nuclear energy after 2030. It is crystal clear that in the next two decades, coal will still be a major source of energy although its consumption by the power sector is to decline by nearly 20%. For years, Silesia has been the region with the second highest contribution to the national GDP, exceeded only by the Masovia Voivodeship with Warsaw – the capital city of Poland. Nevertheless, the importance of Silesia for the Polish economy has been gradually decreasing. Similar to other carbon-intensive regions, a low-carbon transition entails more risks than opportunities according to regional stakeholders. Limited technical potential to deploy renewable power plants, poor air quality, regional dependence on traditional industries as well as limited financial resources pose significant challenges to the low-carbon transition in this Polish region. Let us not forget big politics behind the screen and politicians who have always played a key role in favouring or depreciating Polish mining and to whom coal is alternatively ‘black gold’, or ‘not everything that glitters is gold’. At present, Polish authorities seem to be a guardian angel of Polish coal as they perceive it as a natural and strategic resource and a guarantor of the Polish national interest. Perhaps, it is only a political gambit to hush down Polish miners’ discontent and their worrying about losing employment or benefits (after all promises to keep Polish mining safe and sound were made in 2015 during the election campaign). Yet, isn’t it a bit symptomatic that the Polish President stated adamantly that he will not allow the decline (actually, he used the verb “murder”) of Polish mining, and this statement is being made at the very same time COP24 in Katowice is being held?

So is a low-carbon transition of carbon-intensive regions feasible?

At first glance, the answer to the above question is affirmative, but it will take time to make it happen. From the very beginning reforms in the energy sector should be an essential part of a sustainable transition of coal-dependent regions where the costs may be high, especially in the short-term perspective. The reforms must be wide-ranging, based on a left-to-right political consensus and not biased against the coal sector. To have success in this bold and long-awaited endeavour, the future energy mix and corresponding technologies should be carefully designed, matched and should remain stable in the long-term. At the same time, the right incentives for the energy transition should be clear and acceptable for all stakeholders.

Looking at the future (because there must be one…)

The multi-stakeholder approach is widely promoted by the Paris Agreement and the European Union. The implementation of this policy line is supported by numerous international measures aimed at helping the countries to meet their obligations. These include mainly financing instruments targeted at the activities streamlining the low-carbon transition and the ones to relieve financial barriers of the process and to bring benefits to the society. According to the European Commission, the transition to clean energy in the European Union will require €177 billion in additional investment per year from 2021 onwards. If the right investments are not stimulated now, there is a risk of locked-in high-carbon infrastructure and stranded assets. Moreover, the cost of delaying this transition may be much higher that the costs of the transition itself.

How to step this path to success?

The path to success in the field of decarbonizing European regions deeply laced with coal seems to be bumpy with all its uncertainties and question marks, with dos and don’ts, with negotiations and settlements. The experience and mistakes made by many countries have proved that the energy mix and the technological transition should be designed and implemented on the basis of transparent and well-thought-out schemes and it should remain stable for long time. It is crucial to gain the willingness of the whole coal-based industry to actively participate in the transition with a prerequisite for success being a full political and social consensus over a coal-based regional transition. However, no matter how painful or backbreaking the process turns out to be, we owe this to young and future generations, to people like 16-year old Greta Thunberg, a worldwide known Swedish activist, who in one of her thought-provoking speeches on climate change and the detrimental influence of coal to the environment states that we (“we” read as adults, policy-makers, lobbyists, governments) are stealing our children’s future in front of these children’s eyes and it is a crisis which, if unsolvable on the basis of the existing system, should be managed and overcome by new rules embedded in a new system. Don’t we see that Greta has just thrown down a gauntlet? Should we feel chided or embarrassed by this young and climate-conscious person? The former may not be Greta’s intention but the latter for us to feel is definitely right. Once our cheeks lose the redness of embarrassment, we should stand up, pick up the gauntlet and act. Perhaps, no one will feel like a thief any more.