What is the just transition?

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The just transition is a conceptual framework for guiding society’s move towards a ‘green economy’ and transition away from fossil fuel use. Essentially, advocates of a just transition emphasise that the benefits and costs of the energy transition must be shared fairly, without leaving behind communities whose economies have traditionally relied on fossil fuels. In particularly, the focus is usually on communities reliant on the extraction and use of coal, lignite, and peat for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.

As its climate change mitigation goals have become stricter, the European Union has stressed the need to support a just transition for the many coal-dependent communities across the continent. The transition to renewable energy and natural gas has already displaced some workers: employment in coal mining has been declining in Europe for decades, such as during the sector-wide privatisation and closures in the UK under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, some regions still rely heavily on the coal sector for employment. Data from the European Investment Bank in 2020 suggests that 240,000 people are employed in coal and lignite mines and associated power plants. Central and eastern European countries have the highest levels of participation in the sector, with Poland accounting for the majority (EIB, 2020).

In order to support regions in transition, the EU has created the Just Transition Mechanism. This programme aims to provide social, economic, and technical support to assist regions in adopting environmentally friendly practices and reorienting workers toward the future economy. The initiative is underpinned by the Just Transition Fund, which is expected to provide over € 25 billion in investment from 2021-27. Each region must submit a territorial just transition plan to identify development needs and opportunities for investment. Technical assistance from the EU is available to help local areas prepare projects and access funding.

I attended the Just Transition Platform Meeting – Coal Regions in Transition virtual week from November 15-17, 2021 to understand better the current status of the just transition in the EU. This event hosted sessions on a variety of topics, such as financing the just transition, the outlook for coal mine methane reduction, and case studies of regional low-carbon energy and industrial projects. Speakers hailed from coal regions in countries such as Poland, Czechia, Greece, Romania, Germany, Spain, and Bosnia. Presentations showcased innovative ideas on how to transform local industries while still maintaining employment and cultural heritage. Participants were enthusiastic about sharing ideas and best practices and the potential for increasing intra-EU cooperation.

As a source of expertise on coal and solid fuels, the ICSC will continue to engage with the EU and other global partners to support regions in transition. ICSC research in this area will focus on the evidence-based solutions that can support coal regions in transition, to ensure that the process ensures positive outcomes for all, despite the challenges ahead.