COP24: Social innovation to drive just transition of coal regions

With the carbon costs of travel in mind, key EIT Climate-KIC COP24 session summaries are available online for those who cannot attend—and for review for those present. These summaries aim to extract important debates, dialogues, and learnings from each session.

‘Just transition’—interventions needed to secure workers’ jobs and livelihoods as economies shift to sustainable production—is a major topic at this year’s COP in Katowice, Poland. Systemic, cross-sectoral change catalysed by inclusive social innovation might be key to the just transition of carbon intensive regions into green innovation hotbeds, according to the COP24 session “The role of finance in re-inventing coal and carbon intensive regions” which featured EIT Climate-KIC, the European Investment Bank (EIB), the European Commission (EU Climate Action) and the WWF (WiseEuropa).

Coal currently accounts for 29 per cent of the world’s primary energy supply and generates 44 per cent of global CO2 emissions. The low-carbon transition implies a massive reduction in global coal demand. Planned and ongoing coal mine closures and the commitment by numerous EU Member States to phase out coal use are expected to accelerate this downward trend.

The just transition of coal intensive regions has therefore become a concern for nations like Poland, and the financial sector has been identified as an important driver of these necessary socio-economic shifts.

“We believe such a change has to happen, but it has to happen in a way that is acceptable for regions and communities. We are working very closely with the EU Commission on it,” said Vazil Hudak, VP, EIB.

The EIB points to its work with COP24 host city Katowice as a case study for just transition. Over the past 20 years, the city has received over €200 million from the EIB to support its path to a low-carbon future.

“I was here 10-11 years ago and I remember Katowice as a typical mining city, a bit depressing… Today, it is modern and vibrant city and shows the best way for transition to happen,” said Hudak.

Now, Silesia, Poland, has the chance to become another model for the just transition of a mining region. However, it must first overcome several systemic challenges including: Shrinking local economy, very low social progress index, depopulation, unemployment, degraded land, air pollution, cultural heritage built on mining and more.

To address these challenges, EIT Climate-KIC proposes the involvement of Re-Industrialised Labs—a programme based on citizen engagement and mass innovation that assists key players in industrial areas and regions to uptake sustainable transition pathways by identifying levers of systemic, cross-sectoral change.

“Transformation could happen faster in Silesia, if it’s conducted in a systemic—not sectoral—way,” said Magdalena Dul-Komosińska, CEE Director, EIT Climate-KIC. “The main obstacle with existing programmes for the region, as well as existing funding tools, is that they promote a sectorial approach, while Upper Silesia challenges are intertwined and therefore cannot be dealt with individually.”

Dul-Komosińska pointed out that, while the economic and industrial aspects of the transition to a low-carbon world have been given substantial focus over the last decades, the social aspect, being the main theme of this year’s COP24, has not been supported at an equal scale.

As the most recent WWF report “From Restructuring to Sustainable Development: The Case of Upper Silesia” prepared by WISEEuropa, EIT Climate-KIC partner, points out, the depopulation index in Silesian cities traditionally dependent on hard coal extraction has reached 8.5 per cent, far exceeding that of other Silesian sub-regions and the rest of the country (2.7 per cent). The European Social Progress Index, describing the overall subjective perception of living conditions, positions the Silesia region at 251 out of 273, by far the lowest in Poland.

“There is also another factor, which is more difficult to capture through indexes, but re-occurrs in observations from all the local stakeholders we have been talking to,” said Dul-Komosińska. “Which is the constantly decreasing social engagement, especially among the younger generation.”

These problems, which are quite typical for regions in transition, call for immediate and structured focus. And this is where social innovation comes in. A great example of places where this approach produced widspread success is in the Mondragon region in Spain. Formerly impoverished, it is now one of the most prosperous regions of the country and is home to the biggest global co-operative based on social inclusion.

Gorka Espiau, one of the authors of this success, noted: “Social innovation should create a ’collective permission to innovate’ that affects the entire community. Instead of looking for ‘talent’ in exceptional people, the most advanced forms of social innovation set out to empower the community as a whole so that any individual can behave in an innovative manner.”

There is a lot of social innovation already going on in Upper Silesia. One can see it in places like Dąbrowa Górnicza with its Factory Full of Life, Living Street and Yes App initiatives, Gliwice Community Garden and Hackerspace in Katowice. But this effort is scattered, fragmented and is not supported at a massive scale.

What is needed, therefore, is a bold, visionary approach coming from the region, that would embrace the economic, environmental and social aspects of just transition and put citizens at the heart of things, and empowered to innovate. Focusing, on common values, beliefs and aspirations will further bolster these efforts.

This positive change could come as a Re-Industrialize Hub of Upper Silesia, driving experimental labs in all the relevant areas and joining them in a networked system; taking what is best from other countries’ next generation solutions, learning through knowledge exchanges with other regions, and—above all—focusing on citizen engagement from the start. The bold vision of this transition could be a selling proposition for new types of funding.

The WiseEuropa think tank, in cooperation with WWF Poland, emphasised that Silesia’s just transition depends on measures encompassing on one hand responsibly restructuring the traditional core of the local economy, and on the other, building new competitive advantages thanks to well-planned investment, social, transportation and environmental policies.

“It is the complex manufacturing, and not the energy or mining sectors, that enables a high level of industrialisation necessary to ensure a sustainable, high level of prosperity in Silesia in the following decades. Therefore, the greatest developmental need of the regions is the diversification of the local industrial base with high-efficiency, low-emission manufacturing subsectors, such as the machinery, electrotechnical, chemical and pharmaceutical industries,” said Maciej Bukowski, President, WiseEuropa

Aleksander Śniegocki, Climate and Energy Project Manager, WiseEuropa, emphasised the spillover benefits of such shifts: “Integrated developmental policy focused on attracting modern investments and comprehensive improvement of the standard of living in the region by revitalising the urban fabric and post-industrial areas, improving the availability and the standard of transport services, and significantly reducing emission of pollution and the intensity of mining-related damage, will increase the attractiveness of the Silesian Voivodeship as a place to live on the country’s map.”

 
Location
Poland
Related Goal
Goal 9: Reboot regional economies
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