Good Jobs And a Good Environment for Bulgaria's Coal Region of Galabovo - Rountable

The Green Deal provides Bulgaria with a number of opportunities for accelerated development and progress, but the social risk should not be neglected. This was stated by Bulgaria's President Rumen Radev in a written address to the participants of Good Job and Good Environment roundtable. The forum was held by the BlueLink and Friedrich Ebert foundations in Stara Zagora on Tuesday, 15.11.2022.

At the roundtable representatives of state institutions, political forces, local citizens, climate advocates and experts identified practical solutions that make the green transformation possible and even attractive, by preserving jobs, improving their quality and creating new ones. The focus of attention was the municipality of Galabovo, where the "Brikel" thermal power plant is a hotspot.

In his address Rumen Radev defined the Green Transition as a “huge opportunity for deep and comprehensive economic and social modernization of our society and  a new way of producing and consuming energy, goods and services”. The biggest danger for the green transition is the loss of citizens' trust in it, and the only way to achieve the green transition and sustainable development of the economy is through active dialogue and interaction between institutions, businesses and the public, Bulgaria's head of state emphasised.  Our first goal is to motivate stakeholders on both sides of the “barricade” around coal mining to sit around the table, confirmed Pavel Antonov, Managing Editor of the BlueLink Foundation (pictured left below), who opened the forum.

Achieving good jobs and a good environment is not a 'mission impossible' but a real achievable and necessary goal which requires persistence and efforts of all parties involved in the process - state institutions, branch organizations, business, and society as well in general, the country's Minister of Regional Development and Public Works Arch. Ivan Shishkov stated in a written address. According to him, achieving convergence of European green and climate policies with the need of local communities to ensure sustainable employment and prosperity, transition to a low-carbon economy, improving the quality of jobs, with the aim of preserving them and creating new ones, are extremely important topics for the region.

The forum is organized at the right moment when the programming of the Just Transition Fund goes from planning to concrete implementation, stressed Bulgaria's  Minister of Economy and Industry Nikola Stoyanov. His statement called for a clear vision based on reasonable and justified measures - both for protection of the national interest, as well as for preparation for transformation and guaranteeing economic growth in the Bulgarian regions.

In the conditions of geopolitical tension and the consequences of the world energy crisis, Europe must regain confidence in itself as a leader, including for -poor countries. European countries should not call on others to do more to reduce emissions, while at the same time buying up the world's fossil fuel resources to ensure domestic energy supplies, commented Minister Stoyanov.

Local solutions

The local people who participated in both protests and counter-protests regarding the Brikel TPP in the autumn of 2022, are most affected and need decisive action to change. According to BlueLink's policy expert Plamen Peev, local communities tend to accept a gradual transition with predictable stages but are not aware of employment alternatives outside of mining and thermal power plants - such as in clean low-carbon productions. The lack of awareness leads to concerns about the prospect of a complete closure of the Brikel TPP, BlueLink's analytical field study found out. Even the anti-pollution protestors are currently only talking about modernization with new boilers, desulfurization installations and other improvements, co-author Peev reported.

At the same time, local people expect the state to compensate them and offer them work when thermal power plants are closed, he said. The capacity, attitudes and interest in using the alternatives and financial instruments of the Green Deal and the just transition, of the municipalities, businesses and communities in the region, is greatly hampered.

Access to the special fund for a just transition and accompanying financial instruments such as Bulgaria's Resilience and Recovery Plan and  the Regions in Growth Programme give a strong competitive advantage to the area around Galabovo and Radnevo. It has a unique chance for total transformation to a modern economy, which many other regions in Bulgaria lack, said Peev. Only obstacles such as lack of strong civil society, entrepreneurial class of small and medium enterprises; economic, political, media, and also emotional dependence on several industrial mastodons of the past, stay on the way this change, the expert explained.

The energy transformation creates jobs, said GreenPeace climate and energy campaigner Desislava Mikova : over 12 million jobs globally in 2021, with employment in solar and wind energy having the highest growth in the field of renewable energy sources. In the territory of the municipality of Galabovo in particular there are many areas disturbed by mining activities, which are suitable for rehabilitation and for new industrial and economic activities. Their potential can be practically used for seasonal storage of energy harvested in the summer, she explained.

Another specific opportunity for bridging employment and clean environment is the construction of solar thermal power plants, said Milan Rashevski. A Senior Researcher at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the Institute for Zero Energy Buildings. Rashevski announced that these technologies have already been implemented in Bulgaria's seaside town of Pomorie. Their use in the Maritsa East region is urgent, he emphasized.

Renewable power genereation penetration goes hand in hand with smart grids, large production capacities will be needed to balance the grid and  better connectivity. Bulgaria has the necessary geographical and climatic conditions, and the Maritsa-Iztok complex has the human potential and infrastructure that can be used to the benefit of the local communities, so as to establish itself as the energy heart of the country. A secure economic and political environment and the will to change are needed, Rashevski concluded.

Efforts in another Bulgarian hotspot of the transition to a low-carbon economy - the municipality of Pernik - are seemingly similar. The depletion of coal and the unfortunate heritage from the coal concessions there are forcing residents, municipality and unions to seek  alternative and more sustainable models for a new economy. The youth and civic organizations in the area are active, and the options identified within the BlueLink research include the construction of a technological business hub that would take advantage of the good connectivity with the capital, recalled political scientist Gavrail Gavrailov, also a co-author of BlueLink's report.

There is already a successful example in the Mariitsa East Basin - known as the coal industry's heartland of Bulgaria:  local entrepreneur Dimitar Karanikolov who founded a digital company of global scale in the town of Dimitrovgrad, has coincidentially also become a clean air activist, due to the problems created by the local TPP, Gavrailov reported.

Local communities could also benefit from the potential for tourism and recreation in the former coal regions, the expert emphasized. Examples of this, after successful reclamation of former coal mines, are available in East Germany. In the regional center of Stara Zagora, there are already plans to specialize in family weekend tourism, which includes a greener image for the city and the region.

Bulgaria has so far done nothing to prepare local municipalities and people for transformation, experts from The Agency for Regional Economic Development in Stara Zagora claim. Mihaela Dineva and Sofia Savova presented as an example the much more active efforts and investments for this purpose in neighboring Greece, Slovakia and other affected countries. Bulgaria's territorial plans and other strategies of the state are weak, full of data about the past, but without a clear vision for the future, agreed economist Petko Kovachev from the Green Policy Institute. He called on the local municipalities to be an active party in the search for solutions.

Health consequences of coal mining should also be taken into account when planning the future of people, urged pulmonologist Dr. Veselka Hristamyan of the Breethe, Bulgaria! association in Plovdiv.⧫

One more important thing

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