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Coal Sector Transition needs justice, inclusiveness and a holistic approach

coal mine

The commitment to keep global warming to well below 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels requires decarbonization in all economic sectors and reduction of emissions of all potent greenhouse gases. In practice, this means modernization of the energy sector with a focus on phasing out unabated coal and finding innovative solutions for industries that rely on it and therefore constitute an “industrial ecosystem”, for example steel and cement.

The more comprehensive a country’s transition towards low-carbon energy choices and a green economy, the more competitive its national economy will become. Changes must be economically feasible and socially acceptable for the country as a whole, its affected regions and, in particular, for the local communities most affected.

Decarbonization can create new opportunity and employment in all economic sectors.  It will have disruptive effects on those regions whose economies are reliant on energy-intensive industries. Fear of job losses, disruptive structural and cultural changes, economic decline, and destabilized political processes and institutions end up influencing the social debate more strongly than the benefits of the low-carbon future, and as a consequence there is a strong political barrier to decarbonization.

A “just transition” is an integrated approach to sustainable development that brings together social progress, environmental protection and economic success into a framework of democratic governance and institutional resilience. Effective “just transition” strategies require local, bottom-up engagement of all affected stakeholders and commitment by the governments to guarantee their buy-in and provide planning security. Adapting to a decarbonizing world is a deep structural shift not just for the involved industries and installations, but also for the workers, dependent communities and regions.

With these aspects in mind, UNECE convened a panel on Just Transition on 23 September in the framework of the 30th session of the Committee on Sustainable Energy. The debate was moderated by the Chair of the UNECE Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane and Just Transition, Mr. Raymond Pilcher. He presented the theory behind the concept and real challenges that have been encountered by professionals working on the issue in different parts of the world.

Regulatory issues and a legal framework are needed to prepare and implement just transition in an organized and planned manner. Professor Raphael Heffron, Professor for Just Transition to a Low-Carbon Economy at the University of Dundee, observed “As an international community, we need to utilise law and regulation more creatively to deliver a just transition; the public and energy stakeholders need this display of confidence to feel part of this inclusive process of change”.

Professor Rudiger Lange, Brandenburgische Technische Universität Cottbus-Senftenberg, Germany, presented his experience in working with communities affected by the ongoing changes in Germany. The importance of being open to innovation and seeing the transition, notwithstanding all the challenges that it entails, as an opportunity for development rather than a curse was highlighted.

It is critical that cultural issues are addressed if a just transition is to be achieved. Mr. Michal Drabik, UNECE Economic Affairs Officer, underlined that for centuries coal mining has been much less an occupation and much more a way of life providing people with a sense of identity and belonging. “In order to go through the process of transformation peacefully” Mr. Drabik also observed, “we must assure people that even though their economic activity needs to change, it does not mean that they have to abandon all that they know and believe. Transformation needs to offer them a new life providing both a sense of material security and an opportunity to retain their cultural heritage”.

Mr. Michael Stanley, Global Leader - Energy Transition in Coal Regions, World Bank Group, spoke about the necessity to approach the transition process in a holistic way such that technical, regulatory, financial, and social aspects are addressed simultaneously. In underlining the urgency of the situation, Mr. Stanley emphasized “now is the time to plan and prepare and to introduce new policies, tools and standards that de-risk institutional governance, social impacts on workers and communities, and environmental legacy issues.  The public and private sectors must work together across many years of Just Transition, offering new opportunities for workers and communities”.

In closing, Mr. Pilcher observed “there is wide agreement among the experts on the panel that the social and economic disruptions that occur during regional energy transition require a high level of enduring cooperation between the public and private sectors using innovative approaches and a variety of mechanisms which have proven effective in regions that have previously undergone energy transitions to achieve a Just Transition for all”.

Recognising the importance of a just, inclusive, sustainable and resilient transition, the Committee on Sustainable Energy approved the change of name and mandate of the Group of Experts on Coal Mine Methane to encompass just transition. The Committee also requested that its subsidiary bodies collaborate with other relevant international actors to develop principles or standards that address not only the technical, economic, and environmental issues associated with mine closure, but also the socio-economic challenges faced by the surrounding communities and associated industries.

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