Last updated on: 2024-02-06

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18.05.2023

Coal Region in Poland Emerges as a Potential Blueprint for Just Transition

 

Vice President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans visited the Eastern Greater Poland region, which is on track to phase out coal by 2024 – decades ahead of the rest of Poland. This groundbreaking initiative could serve as a model for the just transition of other coal regions in the country. However, decision bottlenecks in both Warsaw and Brussels threaten to hinder progress. During the visit, mining labour unions and leaders of the ZE PAK brown coal mine welcomed EVP Timmermans with Ode to Joy played by the traditional mining orchestra - a contrast to the recent protest of hard coal miners in Warsaw carrying a coffin with faces of the EU leaders.

 

The situation in Eastern Greater Poland is unique, as mining operations in the pre-last open-pit mine is going to end in May of this year with closure of the Jóźwin site. This is different from the rest of Poland, which is the biggest coal-mining country in Europe, and presents challenges for miners and power plant workers who are already leaving their profession. Out of more than 10’000 workers employed in the ZE PAK Group a decade ago, the company is now less than a third of its size today.

The labour unions in the region are eagerly awaiting the support promised by their government in December 2022, supported by the green light from Brussels. The European funds allocated through the Just Transition Fund are intended to assist in the retraining of workers to new roles. Approximately 10% of the nearly half a billion euros allocated to the region is intended for job creation with new employers, rather than severance pay.

Frans Timmermans' visit to Konin provided an opportunity to discuss the concrete support that the European Commission can provide by expediting the decision-making process regarding state aid for workers. The Vice President declared in Konin that Eastern Greater Poland has the potential to serve as a blueprint for coal regions in Poland: “As soon as the Polish authorities send the state aid request to Brussels, please let me know. I personally assure you that I will see to it that we proceed as quickly as possible in accordance with all the rules.”

 

Local trade unions expressed cautious optimism in response to the declarations made during the visit. For two years, they have been awaiting funds from the Just Transition Fund. Full-scale financing of the comprehensive employee program is contingent upon approval from Brussels. Approximately PLN 150’000 (ca. 30’000 EUR) is required to employ each former miner and their colleagues from the power plant. Alicja Messerszmidt, chairwoman of the 'KADRA' Labour Union at the Konin lignite mine, who invited Frans Timmermans to Konin and welcomed him in her homeland, emphasised that: “The objective here is not merely a generous severance package, but rather an incentive to encourage continued employment and ensure the success of the entire program, which was developed with the support of European Commission experts.”

 

Piotr Woźny, President of the Board of ZE PAK Group - operator of the local lignite mine and power plant, highlighted that the company is already implementing ambitious employee and post-mining reclamation plans. However, the awaited green light from the European Commission remains the crucial factor: “Today’s declaration from President Timmermans that the coal industry workforce from Konin and Eastern Wielkopolska will be given priority in Brussels is crucial. We thank him for this and are happy to show what responsible leadership in the just transition means.”

 

Eastern Greater Poland has the potential to become the first coal region in Poland to move away from coal by 2024, in line with the Paris Agreement, and achieve climate neutrality by 2040 – a decade earlier than the EU's overall target. In 2021, the region became the first in Poland to join the international Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA). The coalition, comprising over 160 countries, local governments, and companies, is committed to phasing out coal and promoting clean energy sources.

 

Michal Hetmanski, just transition expert and CEO Instrat Foundation, who supported the region and local communities on the road to coal phase-out, says: “The coal phase-out in the Polish energy sector will be most painful not for Upper Silesia, with viable alternatives and more time ahead, but for the lignite regions of Konin, Bełchatów and Turów. The most carbon-intensive lignite will be phased-out of the electricity mix firstly due to rising CO2 prices and new renewable energy sources coming into the grid. Therefore it requires special support and attention. Based on reliable data and dialogue with local government, the employer and the trade unions, it has been possible to develop a viable transition plan, boost fundraising and prepare pilot reskilling initiatives, but there is a lack of political will to implement these projects and deliver them on time.”