Climate deal must offer hope for coal miners, says German minister

If the shift away from fossil fuels is not carefully managed, it will create left-behind communities and resentment, officials warn at COP22 climate talks

(Pic: Pixabay)


A poorly managed transition from fossil fuels to cleaner forms of energy and industry will lead to a rise in populist and illiberal political forces.

That was the unusually blunt warning from Jochen Flasbarth, state secretary at the German Environment Ministry, in a presentation on Monday at the UN’s COP22 climate summit.

On point to celebrate Berlin’s new climate plan through to 2050, he was keen to emphasise the need for nationwide support for the radical carbon cuts it proposes.

“We will leave nobody behind – if you organise the transition in a way people feel ‘I’m left behind’, they will follow illiberal forces we see all over the world,” said Flasbarth.

As policy experts, business leaders and national envoys digest the news of Donald Trump’s shock win earlier this week, two words are becoming increasingly common: just transition.

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With many voters in the US election and June’s UK “Brexit” vote complaining of the impacts of globalisation and the lack of quality jobs, it’s a major concern for climate experts.

The world needs to wean itself off fossil fuels fast, but how many of the envoys that crafted the Paris climate agreement thought about coal mining and industrial communities left behind?

One reference to a “just transition” made it into the final text, calling for the “creation of decent work and quality jobs” according to “nationally defined development priorities”.

But veteran observers of these negotiations say it’s about time the process woke up to the anger that many working class communities feel as their industries wither.

“There’s no question people have been ignoring it – there are real numbers behind growing inequality,” says Sam Smith, who heads up the International Trade Union Congress just transition team.

“Some of what is driving political developments is completely unrelated to climate change: trade and globalisation are making people very insecure. The US median wage of working people has declined from 1970s – people have legitimate fears.”

“We have to make it work,” says Rachel Kyte, the UN’s top energy official who is responsible for delivering clean and affordable power to millions around the world without electricity.

She believes jobs and growth lie at the heart of the climate challenge after Brexit and Trump: governments must recognise the need to guide and protect their citizens as the world shifts.

“Coal is no more a solution today than it was last week,” Kyte argues, while calling for a broader climate narrative that does not simply focus on tonnes of greenhouse gases.

“The climate community has not been uniquely culpable but there’s a job to understand an economic change that does not create hugely unhappy losers and multiple problems,” says Elliot Whittington, deputy director of the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group, which counts BT, Coca Cola and Unilever as three of its 24 members.

“It’s more expensive and difficult than we give it credit – but this is just good governance and if you get it right you will write an investment charter for your country.”

Jos Debelke, Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Climate Action, emphasises this message at an event hosted by French think tank IDDRI.

“The focus on growth and jobs will increase,” he says, arguing that contrary to popular perceptions, Brussels has been awake to the concerns of marginalised communities across the continent.

“A third of the EU budget is funding for regional development – this is management of the process of change,” he says. “It’s an art – it’s not easy. You need a lot of noses in the same direction for acceptance of timing.”

Germany’s long term climate plan will calm domestic nerves over its economic transition, contends Flasbarth, who says the country’s vast automotive industry is onside despite its many grumbles.

But he admits there is considerable uncertainty ahead. German is now committed to being powered by 100% renewables by 2050, yet it’s unclear how this will apply to all its sectors.

For its steel and concrete sectors “it’s a bit foggy” he admits. So-called bridging strategies like moving from coal to gas or petrol to biofuels only take you so far.

“You have to develop strategies after bridge technologies… we are talking about a big transformation.”

This week France, Canada, Mexico and the US are expected to publish their own mid-century plans – although it’s unclear what if anything of the last will be implemented by Trump.

UN climate champion Laurence Tubiana will also unveil a “platform” on Thursday for other countries interested in developing similar plans to share tips, data and analysis.

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But many emerging economies betray nervousness. Brazil will take its time before publishing its mid-century pathway, says Everton Lucerno, a vice-minister at the Ministry of Environment.

“The Paris Agreement offers a new path for development and on a new basis, creating a new economy,” he says – but it’s the last element that is making countries wary.

China is one example: the world’s top polluter is operating at over-capacity in the steel sector, but reports indicate the government is wary a rapid contraction could lead to social unrest.

Coal-reliant South Africa faces similar problems, says ITUC’s Smith. Many miners are not literate or numerate: expecting them to become solar or wind operatives is not realistic.

“We’re talking about a country with 40% unemployment, and each person on a salary supports 5 other people,” she says.

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The key is for countries to start planning early and communicate their goals across all sectors, says Flasbarth.

He jokes that ministers who last week said Germany would burn coal till the 2050 have now gone silent: “The later you start the more difficult it will be.”

And Shannon Phillips, environment minister of Alberta, says it’s important climate policies are seen to have a positive impact on the local population.

Last year the Canadian province released its first comprehensive climate plan: it was too weak for many critics but still represented a shock to the system for a population long used to cashing in on its oil wealth.

“Life is getting harder for many people but climate change is real so let’s make sure policies redistribute wealth and create new jobs,” she says.

“In everything we have done have taken into account working people. We cant talk at them – we have to work with them, keep people working…. and use those skills.”

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