Life after coal: Miners wonder how they fit into a low-carbon future.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Miners leave a shaft inside Wieczorek Coal Mine in Katowice, Poland. As Poland considers a future beyond coal, the nation's 83,000 coal miners are left wondering what's next for them.
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Krzysztof Kisiel remembers the day the coal mine recruiters visited his elementary school. They promised specialized training, a good job, and a way to avoid the army. Indeed, coal mines have provided Mr. Kisiel, and much of his family, with steady work. “Mining is a stable profession, and good money,” he says. But for many of Poland’s 83,000 miners, the future looks somewhat uncertain. The question, say many experts, is not whether Poland needs to shift away from coal but how to do so in a way that minimizes the negative effect on the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. Samantha Smith of the Just Transition Centre urges industry and political leaders to look outside Poland – to places such as Denmark and Alberta, Canada – for examples of how to move beyond coal without leaving workers behind. “The only way we are actually going to get change both on inequality and also on emissions at the scale that we need it is if we do it through ‘just transition,’ ” she says.

Why We Wrote This

Whether in Germany, Appalachia, or Poland, the call for cleaner energy comes tinged with concerns of lost livelihoods. Can coal-reliant nations find a climate-friendly path that doesn't leave miners behind?

The coal mines were what brought Krzysztof Kisiel to Upper Silesia, as this region of southern Poland is known.

“There was no work in my home area,” says Mr. Kisiel, who has gathered at a local tavern with fellow miners – all men – around songbooks and huge mugs of beer in celebration of Barbórka, or St. Barbara’s Feast Day honoring miners. He remembers recruiters coming to his elementary school, promising specialized training, a good job, and a way to avoid the army.

Kisiel and his wife both worked in the Jaworzno mine. His son studied banking but followed his father into the mine when there was no banking work. His son-in-law works there too.

Why We Wrote This

Whether in Germany, Appalachia, or Poland, the call for cleaner energy comes tinged with concerns of lost livelihoods. Can coal-reliant nations find a climate-friendly path that doesn't leave miners behind?

“Mining is a stable profession, and good money, thanks to which they can support their families. And after 25 years of work in a mine they will get a good pension,” says Kisiel. “One day Poland will definitely leave coal, but this is not a problem for now.”

The question of when to transition away from coal is a point of contention among many Polish residents, especially as much of the world looks toward a future that is not dependent on fossil fuels. Poland’s reliance on coal was thrust into particularly sharp relief in December at the United Nations’ climate summit, held in the heart of Poland’s coal country in Katowice. Many visitors noted the incongruity of world leaders discussing how to reduce carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels in a country where 80 percent of electricity comes from coal.

The question, say many experts, is not whether Poland – like many regions and countries around the globe – needs to shift away from coal but how to do so in a way that minimizes the negative effect on the people who depend on it for their livelihoods. And while Katowice may have seemed an odd place to host a conference focused on reducing global emissions, it’s also emblematic of the challenges and opportunities in numerous places in the world. 

From North America and Europe to Asia and Australia, the needs of a changing planet are butting up against local economies, raising tough questions about how to help the global population without creating overwhelming hardship for vulnerable individuals. In Germany, which currently gets a third of its electricity from coal, officials are coupling plans to phase out coal use by 2038 with a push to create 5,000 new jobs to help workers in affected regions.

“The only way we are actually going to get change both on inequality and also on emissions at the scale that we need it is if we do it through ‘just transition,’ ” says Samantha Smith, director of the Belgium-based Just Transition Centre, a group established by the International Trade Union Confederation. “Working people have to be on board, and therefore you have to have the process, you have to take the time, you have to get the resources for that to happen.”


International Energy Agency

Mark Trumbull, Laurent Belsie, and Jacob Turcotte/Staff


An inevitable shift?

The idea of “just transition” – essentially the notion that shifting to a low-carbon economy shouldn’t come at the expense of workers and their communities – got a lot of talk in Katowice, including from the Polish president, Andrzej Duda.

“I would like to stress that the choice is not between work and natural environment, but rather whether we retain both or none of them,” President Duda told delegates during his opening remarks. “Just transition should be understood as a tool to support climate policy, not as an alternative.” At the same time, Duda made clear that he continues to see coal as a key part of Poland’s economy.

That’s an attitude that makes some observers wonder whether there’s any real will in Poland to start that shift away from coal.

“[The] Polish government is hiding behind the slogan of just transition,” says Marta Anczewska, climate and energy policy officer at the environmental group WWF Poland. “Some politicians want to use this concept to delay the energy transformation, or they translate it as a struggle to preserve jobs in mines.”

Fears about lost mining jobs may not be overblown. Some forecasts show that by 2050, the Upper Silesian region will have fewer than 10,000 jobs in the sector – seven times fewer than today.

Kacper Pempel/Reuters
Chimneys from the Wieczorek mine power plant loom over the Nikiszowiec district in Katowice, Poland.The Eastern European nation relies on coal for 80 percent of its electricity. Officials aim to reduce that figure to 50 percent by 2040, though demand is expected to increase so production could remain flat.

That shift is inevitable, says Ms. Anczewska, but “no one prepares people employed today in mining for such a scenario.”

Andrzej Chwiluk, a union activist whose mine near Zabrze closed two years ago and who is retiring this year, agrees that current plans aren’t doing enough to ensure a smooth transition for workers. He cites efforts in Germany, where in some cases miners learned of mine shutdowns several years in advance. There, miners were visited by companies offering jobs and new training. Corporate representatives even followed up a few months into their new jobs to gauge whether they wanted to stay.

In contrast, Mr. Chwiluk says he and his fellow mine workers found out that their mine would close a week before it was shut down.

“Two years after the mine was closed down, there haven’t been any new workplaces created in this area,” he says. “Some miners found jobs in different mines in the region, but many people who worked on the ground are still unemployed.”

‘Show me, don’t tell me’

Beyond the mining sector, public momentum is growing, says Ms. Smith of the Just Transition Centre. Air pollution has become a chief concern for many residents in Poland; it is home to 33 of the 50 most polluted cities in Europe, due in part to its reliance on coal. And pressure from the European Union, where there is growing momentum to move away from coal, is mounting as well.

But for the nation to truly to embrace such a transition, the 83,000 people currently employed by the mines have to be brought along as well.

“For this to work and in order to get the people most affected on board, you need a structure and someone who can talk to workers and be trusted by workers. That’s generally going to be unions,” Smith says. “And you need to have a plan for new jobs before you start to talk to people about losing the jobs they have.”

Ideally, she adds, energy companies need to find ways to keep existing workers and train them for new jobs, understanding that different workers, at different stages of their career, may need a range of options.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
A miners' orchestra marches and plays around the Nikiszowiec estate in Katowice, Poland, to celebrate Barbórka Miners' Day, or St. Barbara's Day, Dec. 4, 2018. At one time, Poland's mining industry employed 500,000 miners. As those numbers have declined, so has the prestige associated with the profession.

“As people get into a process and see that they’re represented, and they see their unions are getting them the things they need and want in order to get through this change, their views about what is happening also change,” Smith says. “But it really is show me, don’t tell me.”

She urges industry and political leaders to look outside Poland for examples of an economically viable transition.

Denmark, for instance, was once heavily dependent on oil, and then coal, before it shifted toward wind energy. The transition took several decades, but in the process Denmark created numerous jobs and became one of the top builders of wind turbines. In Alberta, Canada, a carbon tax is helping to fund plans for workers and communities that are heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants.

The Pittsburgh model

In the US, few cities have been as closely identified with industry as Pittsburgh. As a city built on steel, the entire economy was dependent on coal, which is vital to the steelmaking process. When the steel industry collapsed in 1979, it sent Pittsburgh into an economic tailspin.

Fossil fuels remain a part of the economy in Allegheny County, which sits on top of the Marcellus Shale Formation, one of the largest natural-gas reserves.

But today there are more people employed in renewables in Allegheny County than in coal, oil, and gas combined, says Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. Pittsburgh now also boasts leadership in areas such as robotics and health care.

“We’ve been able to make this transition,” Mayor Peduto says, “but it did take 30 years in order to do so.”

In December, Peduto traveled to Katowice to represent US mayors at the climate conference, and he’s been working to help a number of postindustrial cities around the world understand how they can make the sort of transition that Pittsburgh did.

“When it comes to talking to workers in coal country,” says Peduto, “there needs to be a more pragmatic approach that recognizes that they built America and there’s the opportunity for them to rebuild it once again.”

Like Smith, Peduto emphasizes that such transitions – whether occurring in Poland, China, or Appalachia – aren’t easy and take time and that there has to be buy-in from the workers affected in order for them to be successful.

The power of a paycheck

In Silesia, some residents are seeing the beginnings of the shift starting to occur.

“Many people are starting to see Silesia as a good place to live, more companies are opening their headquarters here, and mining is less important than it was a few years ago,” says Kamil Łach, president of the Jaworzno To My (Jaworzno It’s Us) association, as he sits in a shopping center built on the site of a former mine.

Mr. Łach’s father worked in a mine, but he says that the profession doesn’t have the prestige it once had in Poland, and he sees fewer people choosing to be miners. And some pro-environmental campaigns – along with awareness of the pollution problem – are starting to change minds.

“Inhabitants are more interested in the environment; they are more cautious about what they burn in the stoves and the quality of the water they drink,” says Łach.

But the biggest key to shifting opinions may be economic.

“All these towns that were part of the old economy could have the opportunity to become a part of the new economy,” says Peduto. “There’s a saying that I’ve used in past campaigns: If you want to take a gun out of a kid’s hand, put a paycheck in it. And if you want to turn a mineworker into an environmentalist, put a paycheck in their hand.”

This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.

[Editor's note:  In an earlier version of this story, the caption for the lead photograph of miners in the Wieczorek Coal Mine contained an erroneous date. It has been removed.]

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