We Need a Just Transition—Because We Should Abandon Coal, Not Coal Workers
A mural in Richwood, West Virginia, a once booming Appalachia coal town, honors the community’s history. Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
Even if clean energy champions, environmentalists, and climate activists weren’t working together to end the burning of coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels would still be on its way out. The free market is seeing to that. As the cost of renewables continues to fall and the production of cheap natural gas continues to rise, coal has lost whatever competitive advantage it once enjoyed over other energy sources. By next year, coal consumption in our country’s power sector is expected to drop to its lowest level since 1978. That would represent a decline of 27 percent since 2016.
The nation’s older, smaller coal plants have been disappearing for more than a decade; now, even the newer, larger ones are being retired at a rapid clip. On the one hand, that’s to be celebrated: Every coal-fired power plant that goes offline, be it large or small, means fewer pollutants poisoning our lungs and water and fewer greenhouse gases warming the planet. But on the other hand, there is cause for real concern. Whenever a coal-fired power plant or a coal mine shuts down, jobs are lost and workers, their families, and their entire communities suffer.
To address these unfortunate consequences, organizations and governments pushing for a coal phaseout have begun to emphasize the importance of establishing a “just transition” for those who have been, or will be, most affected by these closures. The still-young concept is deliberately amorphous, since each community’s needs will differ from the next. But however the transition manifests, the goal is the same: ensuring that no one gets left behind as we shift from one energy economy to another, and that everybody who wants one has a role to play in what’s to come.
In Brussels last week, members of the European Commission— the executive arm of the European Union, responsible for crafting and implementing policy — met in a high-level conference to discuss the immediate social impacts of the European Union’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Among the topics discussed: whether the €4.8 billion recently proposed for an Energy Transition Fund is actually enough to aid Europe’s coal-dependent regions as they move from fossil-fuel production to the clean energy future, or whether it’s just “a drop in the ocean in terms of the challenges that these places face,” in the words of one critic. 10-20-19