Coalitions as a key to a just transformation


Successful transformations must include dialogue between partners who participate jointly in the decision-making process. Without an active, broad coalition that uses coherent narratives and symbols that involve as many social groups as possible, it will not be possible to implement effective and positive solutions.

The second meeting of the French–German–Polish Forum on European Structural Change, which is devoted to European structural changes in the energy sector, took place in Katowice on the 3rd and 4th of December 2018. The aim of the meeting was to provide concrete examples of just transitions in different stages; to see best practices in Silesia and explore the differences between cities. How will the coal mining sector change, or not, in the next 15 to 20 years? How can activists build coalitions with local politics and administration, business initiatives or experts? The participants visited local coal mines and talked to local politicians and activists about how the Silesian region and cities were, and still are, dealing with the challenges of structural change.

While the talks at the COP24 conference centred around a just transition, our experts were on the ground, learning firsthand about how the Silesian coal region has been impacted by coal and trying to find out what the strategies are for an innovative green development – or rather, what could they be, as there are actually no coherent, successful political strategies for structural development being implemented in the region, only ideas or single instruments that are in many cases insufficient. A holistic transition requires a shared understanding of a sustainable economy and a successful transition includes a dialogue between stakeholders who make decisions together. Coalitions must agree on some theory of change, find a narrative, symbols and leaders to convince people from different groups, and then follow this strategy with positive solutions. Then of course funds are needed to implement it. It also turned out that the legal system, at the country and EU level, has become very important, as having the law on your side allows movements to rely on existing structures.

One key takeaway was that the region’s dependence on coal has led to mono-economies – the majority of the industry and business initiatives was based around resource extraction. The transition of the last 30 years has led to many lost jobs in the region and social decline in many places – a brain drain and demographic change (aging population, migration from cities). Sectors like manufacturing and the service industry were also negatively impacted. A just transition must therefore address all of these issues simultaneously.

During the meeting at the Central Mining Institute of Katowice, that institute’s own experts presented their perspective on the future of coal in Poland. References to ‘ecological coal’, carbon capture and storage and another fifty years of coal in Poland may have been surprising to participants, but they reflected a very important part of the Polish mainstream political debate. It was also admitted that a growing share of the coal used in Poland is imported (mainly from Russia). The Institute experts stressed that a clear vision of how to build a new identity for the region and its inhabitants is needed.

While local politicians in Rybnik and Sosnowiec seemed to recognise that reliance on coal jobs was problematic for their towns, they addressed this challenge in differing ways. There are no coal mines anymore in Sosnowiec (although many existed before), and after a hard time of restructuring in the 1990s when the unemployment rate was about 25%, a reduction to only 6–7% has now been achieved, thanks in part to the fact that the city introduced an active policy of developing investments areas for new business initiatives. It was stressed, however, that such a transition must be stretched out over a longer time in order to reduce social costs like migration from such cities. As a result, Sosnowiec now benefits from a better environmental situation and improved economic diversity.

The mayor of Rybnik focused on air pollution, which is a huge problem in many cities in Silesia (mainly as a result of burning coal and other fossil fuels of low quality); the fact that 40% of the city’s inhabitants are dependent on the coal sector, and low awareness (people have become so accustomed to the miasma of pollution outside that they accept it as a fact of everyday life) combine to make it very hard to find and offer solutions, except for the hope that people would someday become involved in politics and ‘give back’ to their town. Meanwhile, local activists perceive the smog as a complex social problem (in terms of both its reasons and its effects) and point towards the complete impossibility of introducing successful strategies for air quality improvement when there are no effective policies and norms introduced at the national level. Their hope is placed in the EU’s institutions and legal processes, which have resulted in victories like the stop on logging in the Białowieża forest.

In the very latest politic context (announcement of a new and unambitious energy policy 2040 in Poland, the carbon tax being protested by the Gilets Jaunes and the debate around the collapse of society growing stronger in France, and the German Coal Commission finalising its vision for how to phase out coal while supporting coal regions), the group discussed the role of protests (Hambacher Forst, Białowieża National Park) and crucial elements of how to create a successful environmental narrative to influence the mainstream discourse and political change, but also to strengthen democracy and participation. The question of governance and implementation of a fair transition away from coal and addressing all its concerns fairly was discussed on the example of the Coal Commission in Germany, which is meant to be as representative as possible, being made up of 31 members from political parties, NGOs, scientists, trade unions and members of industry.

The adherence to coal in Poland was surprising to some German participants, who have heard even among pro-coal industry an acceptance of the inevitable phase-out. Another unpleasant surprise is the impact of German policies on Polish discourse. Rather than being held up as a positive example for its Energiewende, Germany is used as an excuse: because Germany continues to mine and burn lignite, the argument goes, there is no reason for Poland to stop.

The French participants emphasised the social justice aspect of transitions. While previously, environmental NGOs might have felt that social policy is the domain of the government, the recent protests have shown that accepting an unjust tax may be worse than doing nothing at all. The Gilets Jaunes movement began over outrage that carbon taxes made life worse for the poorest in France, and seem to have completely shut down the possibility of ecological taxes in the future. The lesson learned here, which applies to Poland and Germany as well, is that successful transitions must include a dialogue between stakeholders who make decisions together. Without a broad coalition, with narratives and symbols that appear to the general population as a whole, it will be impossible to implement positive solutions.

The Polish government may think that there are another fifty years of coal ahead – and be supported in this folly by the US and some other countries – but rising energy prices and worldwide trends show that this is a misguided hope. And as the huge structural shakeups of the 1990s proved, when a community is badly prepared for change, the effects can last for decades. Silesia needs a serious strategy on structural investment now, and this is why coalitions are important – they make it possible to consider the environmental issues, but also to include the social aspects of transition. The role of “green” coalitions in structural change should be to point out that resilient infrastructures and institutions are needed. They don’t depend on economic growth, and they also work in times when the economy is staggering or in decline. In the future, due to planetary boundaries, this will become more and more important.

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