The EU Commission aims to implement a just transition that “leaves no one behind.” However, local entities such as trade unions and municipalities express concern over inadequate consultation, thereby threatening workers’ futures.
By the end of 2022, Bulgaria was the only member state that hadn’t finalized its territorial plans to access the Just Transition Fund (JTF), a €17.5 billion fund designed to assist carbon-intensive regions in transitioning to sustainable energy while offsetting potential job losses.
“The transition will happen. It’s a question of managing it or being managed by the transition,” said Francisco Barros Castro, cabinet expert of the European Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira. He noted that while the EU provides funds, rules, and assistance, the responsibility lies with member states to utilize them effectively.
Certain countries lead the pack in JTF implementation, while others lag behind, hindered by their job market’s nature and poor communication with local and territorial entities.
A neglected partnership principle
The JTF regulation highlights the ‘partnership principle’ as a pillar of the just transition. It entails local bodies’ involvement during the drafting and monitoring stages of the plans. However, despite what is reported in the territorial plans, discussions with local stakeholders are not always carried out properly.
For instance, Italy lacks adequate trade union involvement. Emanuele Madeddu, secretary of the Filctem CGIL union in southwestern Sardinia, states, “The involvement of the trade unions does not exist today and never has been.”
The Sardinia region arranged a few consultations with the territory in the Spring of 2021, aiming to define just transition guidelines with local stakeholders. However, Madeddu and other unions described the meeting as generic and “without a real discussion to build together the intervention plan for Sulcis”.
Communication about the JTF between the region and local bodies remains minimal, resulting in growing concerns. As Ignazio Locci, mayor of Sant’Antioco and president of the Union of Municipalities of Sulcis Archipelago, reported, “We don’t know anything since the consultation phase”. Other local mayors, like Andrea Pisanu and Stefano Rombi, described the events as two years of “total darkness”.
Last fall, the case of the Sulcis trade unions was brought to the commission by Green MEP Ignazio Corrao. Despite the dissatisfaction with the initial consultation, trade unions became involved after their inclusion in the national monitoring committee of the JTF from May this year.
The situation is similarly dire in Spain, owing to the dynamic between the centralised Institute for Just Transition (ITJ) and the autonomous regions.
In the north region of Asturias, JTF was introduced to some social bodies, while in the Balearic Islands the local government only offered one general meeting communicating all just transition plans, national and EU-funded, three months before the JTF was nationally approved.
Either way, trade unions and environmental groups do not seem to act as participants defining the fund’s performances in every region — as the regulation states — but only as spectators of already-defined plans with local governments and companies.
“We have not participated as parties involved in defining these actions (…), the ministry has spoken directly with the regional governments and companies without speaking with the logical trade union structure representing workers,” said Vicente Sánchez, a representative for energy transition in the trade union Comisiones Obreras (CCOO).
During Greece’s implementation process, a failure to be inclusive was evident. Initially, the Ministry of Environment and Energy led all projects in a collaborative and efficient manner. Later, these duties were transferred to the Ministry of Development.
As Nikos Mantzaris, member of the Committee on Climate Change Mitigation pointed out, “Since then, there has been a top-down approach. It’s not just an administrative change, it also puts a stop to any cooperation with anyone else”.
On the commission’s side, Francisco Barros Castro acknowledges that “In some cases, there was less consultation than ideal”. However, he affirmed that the Commission wouldn’t approve any territorial just transition plan if it fell short of the consultation process.
He also presented tools the EU is providing to give more visibility to regions and stakeholders, such as the Just Transition Platform Conference, a periodical meeting to share experiences with JTF between member states.
In contrast to the Commission’s position, JTF Rapporteur Siegfried Mureșan advocates for stricter control of state consultations with local bodies and stakeholders. “We want governments to be obliged to consult stakeholders. We want the European Commission to evaluate this and we want, if the evaluation of the Commission is negative, a plan to be rejected unless it is improved,” he told EUobserver.
He claimed this was the parliament’s vision for the Recovery and Resilience Facility, but the EU council was against it, because countries want money with “no rules and with no obligations”.
“This is a fight where we [EU Parliament] are always very demanding, the governments don’t want to do anything and we have to push,” he said.
As the European institutions are putting regulations and funds, it is up to national and regional governments to really involve their territories in implementing an effective and fair transition. Should they fail, the JTF will only throw money at the problem and fail to prevent thousands of job losses.
An inconsistent job market
The green transition will heavily impact workers in carbon-emitting industries.
Northern Sweden regions like Norrbotten and Västerbotten have been grappling with a dwindling population since the 1980s. The green transition, along with the JTF, will generate a high demand for human resources, making it difficult for these regions with relatively low tax capital toto develop housing and infrastructure and attract external expertise.
Rikard Eriksson, professor in economic geography at the University of Umeå, is leading a study of green industrialisation in northern Sweden. “A green transition of the industries is not actually sustainable if it doesn’t include the rest of society.” he explained to EUobserver.
Ylva Sardén, senior advisor for the region of Norrbotten, emphasises the challenges of future regional development. “We are simply too few people to solve it. Pure capital would perhaps not solve the problems, but it is clear municipalities are on their knees,” she states.
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Southern Europe faces a different challenge. Vicente Sánchez, a trade union representative and a doctor in applied economics at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, explains how renewable sector jobs are fewer and of lower quality than those lost in coal mines and energy plants.
“The salaries in these sectors are much lower than those received before. (…) Moreover, maintenance does not necessarily have to be carried out by personnel based in those regions, it can come from neighbouring areas. Therefore, we are not even guaranteeing that workers stay in those regions.” Sánchez explained.
The Mallorca island, despite booming solar energy, suffers from poor territorial planning, as revealed by five local ecological groups in April 2021. A complaint remains that the rapid installation of solar fields disregards the 2019 Spanish Climate Change and Energy Transition law. To this day, no territorial planning has taken place, and in 2023 the island will host more than 60 solar fields, some of them spanning up to 10 hectares, while protests are already taking place in some villages around the island.
Margalida Rosselló, representative of Mallorcan environmental group Terraferida, which participated in the press release, also added how job insecurity is a problem when installing these fields. “Companies are interested in renewables because there is financial aid. They install it in a certain place and then they start an energy-selling process for 25-30 years. This barely creates any jobs (…) There are jobs when building it, but when they are already built, after a year there will be one or two jobs since it’s all digitally monitored already,” she said. The JTF will invest €2.1 million in solar energy in Mallorca alone.
Similarly, Italy faces the risk of creating short-term and inadequate green jobs to offset future job losses. “Workers will build photovoltaic systems, but what will happen then?” asked the secretary of union FSM CSIL Giuseppe Masala.
“It would be different if those solar fields were built and recycled in our territory.” Another concern of unions is the vagueness of the current ideas of reskilling, which are likely to struggle considering workers in Sulcis are 55 years old, on average.
When it comes to job losses, various programs have failed so far in Greece. Nikos Mantzaris, member of the Committee on Climate Change Mitigation, stated that “There are some resources, approximately 120 million, that have been activated for the purpose of reskilling and up-skilling, but the absorbency of these resources is alarmingly low”.
As a Senior Policy Analyst of GreenTank, he said a study in 2020 found there is a profound ignorance in Greek society, across all ages, regarding the green transition. As he mentioned, things have only gotten worse over time. Few trade unions and local communities have shown interest in whether the transition is progressing.
The transition of the job market is thus facing different challenges in Northern and Southern Europe, ranging from not having enough people for new green jobs to struggling to ensure training and employment for all. Despite these difficulties and risks compromising the potential of JTF, some countries have already managed to start a successful transition.
Where JTF is working
In comparison to other countries, Sweden managed some success in the implementation of the Just Transition Fund. So far 19 projects, a total of €20.5 million out of the planned €156 million, have been approved. The purpose of the projects ranges from competence development in the job market to studies on technological advancement in the steel, iron and mineral industries
“Despite the challenges the region is facing, we are very happy and grateful for being included in the fund,” said Ylva Sardén, senior advisor for the region of Norrbotten.
Despite a lack of projects in Silesia, other JTF regions in Poland are at the forefront of implementation, with regions like Eastern Wielkopolska showing one of the most progressive territorial transition plans in Europe.
“For me the exciting thing is actually seeing how the ambition is increasing with each year,” said Miloslawa Stępień, Just Transition Coordinator of Bankwatch in Poland, one of the largest European network of environmental NGOs. “The monitoring committees for the five regions included are all on the voivodeship [regional] level (…) it hasn’t been centralised, which is actually very good. It’s closer to the region.”
Similarly, Greece and France have successfully included local bodies during the planning process. For instance, local bodies in the region of Western Macedonia contributed significantly to the final plans. According to the regional governor, Georgios Kasapidis, “From the beginning, all municipalities showed interest and submitted their proposals”.
The European Commission has also been successful when implementing the plans in Poland. “They’re interested in what we have to say about what’s happening in the regions because they know we actually work there.” Stępień added.
“Every single member state but one [Bulgaria] has now clear plans for phasing out fossil fuels and cleaning up high-polluting industries,” said Barros Castro, mentioning the Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia as countries where projects have already successfully started.
“Romania had no plans for phasing out coal, even though mines were closing every year or struggling […]. We have 76 regions and in most of them actually the just transition plans are working very well,” he said.
Good examples around Europe show that the huge ambition of converting the carbon economy leaving no one behind is more realistic when EU institutions, national and regional governments and local stakeholders work together. As the just transition has only taken its first steps, the monitoring of the implementation of the JTF in the next years will be crucial to ensure a steady future for the workers of all European carbon-intensive regions.