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Saving energy, saving jobs

12 October 2018

Arthur Wyns explains why the transition to clean fuels need not mean leaving communities in the dust


A coal-fired steel factory in Bottrop, Germany, has coal supplies until the end of 2018, after which the neighbouring coal mine will close for good

A coal-fired steel factory in Bottrop, Germany, has coal supplies until the end of 2018, after which the neighbouring coal mine will close for good

WHEN President Trump announced his attention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, it was workers — “and I happen to love the coal miners” — he said that he was championing.

It would “hamstring” them, he argued. “It is time to put Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania — along with many, many other locations within our great country — before Paris, France.”

The response from Pittsburgh was swift: its Mayor, Bill Peduto, replied that the city intended to keep faith with Paris.

Yet although most of the arguments in Trump’s Pittsburgh speech were counterfactual, the United States government is still on course to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. And, despite strong signals at recent UN climate summits that the rest of the world will stay in the agreement, fear remains that other nations might follow suit. A Brazilian presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, recently threatened to “quit Paris” if he came to power.

THE Paris target — keeping global warming well below 2°C and attempting to keep it below 1.5°C — is only feasible if we phase out coal, the most emission-heavy of energy sources. A recent study by Climate Analytics places the end date at no later than 2030 for the OECD and EU28 countries, and 2050 for the rest of the world.

The transition away from coal and towards renewables is already under way. A recently formed coalition of 46 governments and 28 companies has made a commitment to completely phase out coal from the power sector by 2030. Germany, the fifth largest contributor to emissions, has created a Coal Exit Commission to create a national strategy to ditch coal completely. And the governments of Denmark, Costa Rica, and Scotland, to name but a few, are getting closer every day to being permanently powered by renewables.


CAN this be done in a just way, without harming the livelihoods of those working in the sector? A look at the picture in the US is encouraging. Despite President Trump’s claims, the low-carbon energy revolution is bringing new employment opportunities to the United States.

The coal sector has been shedding jobs for decades, driven by automation of work and, more recently, the abundance of cheap natural gas. Against this backdrop, the fastest growing job description in the US is “solar engineer”. Close to 400,000 Americans work in the solar industry, according to the US Department of Energy — more than double that of the coal industry.

Worldwide, the renewable-energy sector now directly employs more than ten million people, an increase of five per cent since 2016.

“Globally, 24 million new jobs in the renewable-energy sector will be created by 2030 if the right policies are put in place for a greener economy,” Bert de Wel from the International Trade Union Confederation says.

These positive signs were confirmed by a recent study led by ten research institutes, Coal Transitions, which concluded: “Coal transitions are already under way around the globe because of technological improvements in the renewable-energy sector and a growing competitiveness of the green-energy sector.”

ARTHUR WYNSThis open-cast mine near Cologne, Germany, is part of the largest Lignite mine region in the world

“Governments are beginning to put in place new exploratory initiatives, just-transition task forces, coal-transition commissions, and stakeholder-consultation platforms to explore options for the end of coal use,” the report concludes.

ONE such task force has been taking shape in Germany. The recently launched Coal Exit Commission brings together policymakers, industry representatives, labour unions, and environmental NGOs in a bid to balance the country’s long-term climate goals with economic development and social considerations.

By December of this year, the Commission hopes to put an end date on all coal-fired power plants in the country, while setting up social programmes for the employees and communities who will feel the impact of this transition.

So far, more than 100 mines have been closed down by Germany’s sole remaining mining corporation, RAG: there are forced post-closure payouts to compensate for environmental impacts and regional employment changes. These post-closure costs for RAG are estimated at €220,000 a year, indefinitely. They are aptly named “eternity costs” in Germany.

In Ibbenbüren, where a German mine is scheduled to close down this year, along with the two other remaining hard-coal mines in the country, care has been taken to ensure that a social safety-net is in place for workers.

“Our whole sector reduced its workforce by 350,000 jobs during the past 50 years, offering early-retirement schemes, compensation payments, and retraining schemes,” the chairman of RAG, Michael Vassiliadis, explains.

“In Ibbenbüren, for example, we had around 40 workers who were too young for early retirement; so we offered them schooling options for them to reroute their career options.”

The head of the city’s planning department, Monika Umlauf, suggests: “This type of balanced phase-out model enables all affected parties to prevent social unrest and unemployment, while at the same time still making a just, fair transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources.”

The model is being championed outside Germany’s borders. Another example is the EU’s Coal Regions in Transition platform, launched at the end of 2017 by the European Commission to support historic mining regions. The Polish region of Silesia; the Trencín region, in Slovakia; and Western Macedonia, in Greece were selected as pilots for the platform.

Similarly, in Italy, the coal giant Enel plans to close down 13GW-worth of coal-produced electricity by 2050, while at the same time retraining employees to work in the renewables sector.

Aaron Mair, of the Sierra Club, an American environmental organisation founded by John Muir in 1892, says: “[As we] transition to a cleaner way of manufacturing, [we need to ensure] a smooth transition that provides for workers.”

The argument that action on climate change would hurt economies does not hold. At the UN climate summit in May, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Erik Solheim, argued that action would create “healthier and wealthier” economies.

Arthur Wyns is a science journalist who works for Climate Tracker.

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