Overline: Reassessing the Coal Commission
Headline: Germany’s Coal Exit: New Strategies for Structural Change Needed

Affected communities in former lignite-mining regions are critical of the work of Germany’s Coal Commission. With the phase-out still unfolding, a new study shows that further efforts and new strategies must be developed to ensure local communities are more closely involved. More public participation, more cooperation between stakeholders, and conflict mediation are all needed, the study reveals.

Participants at a workshop on structural change in the Rhenish mining district
Zukunftsagentur Rheinisches Revier

In 2018/2019, the so-called “Coal Commission” (Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment) worked out a compromise in dialogue with stakeholders from industry, trade unions, and the environmental and science sectors to facilitate Germany’s exit from coal-fired power generation. Jörg Radtke (RIFS) and Martin David (Leuphana University of Lüneburg) wanted to know how people in the Lusatian and Rhenish coal districts rated the procedural fairness of this process - in other words, whether they felt that the work and recommendations of the Coal Commission were fair and whether they were satisfied with the resulting process of structural transformation. The two researchers analysed several studies and conducted interviews with representatives from politics, business, civil society, and media in the affected regions. Procedural fairness is crucial not only as a measure of people’s satisfaction with the outcome of this process, but also as a means to secure trust in democratic decision-making processes in general.

Who decides the fate of communities?

The findings of this research show that the interests of local populations in lignite-mining districts were not sufficiently considered in the recommendations of the Coal Commission. "We attribute this to three factors: shortcomings in the representation of local communities and environmental interests in decision-making; deficits in participation processes involving the public and stakeholders; and missed opportunities to create a fair and open process. The failure to properly account for the preferences of local communities in this process meant that they had little influence on the subsequent policy design," explains Radtke. Many of those surveyed expressed concerns that the changes would impose undue social burdens across the affected regions and that ultimately outsiders would decide the fate of communities.

Concerns greater in Lusatia

Efforts to secure a just coal exit that considered the interests of civil society were more successful in the Rhenish mining district, says Radtke: “The coal exit in the Rhenish mining district was supported by a regional mission statement, long-term strategies, a tourism plan for economic growth and more measures to encourage networking, creativity and experimentation than in Lusatia, which lacked a participation strategy." The interviews showed that acknowledging the identities and cultures of local communities and their connections to landscapes as well as lived traditions plays a crucial role in shaping people’s satisfaction with the decision-making and transformation process.

People in the Rhenish mining district are more positive about the future than those in Lusatia, where many associate the coal exit with a sense of loss. The Lusatians surveyed emphasized the importance of attracting new companies to the region and were deeply concerned about the region’s declining population. Respondents in the Rhenish mining district, on the other hand, are primarily concerned about the success of energy transition projects in the region. Their focus on the challenges of structural change is not shared by people in Lusatia, where many doubt that the coal exit can deliver positive effects. Respondents in Lusatia were also skeptical of politicians’ promises of greater support for the tourism sector and efforts to attract high-tech companies to the region. The study also showed that actors from the science sector and civil society were less engaged in the process in Lusatia than in the Rhenish mining districts.

According to the authors, the Coal Commission recognized Lusatia's need for greater support, but was not tasked with addressing this or developing concrete strategies. Strategies for public participation, stakeholder cooperation and conflict mediation will be crucial to delivering greater procedural justice in future regional strategies and in relation to energy transition projects and processes of structural change.

Available here: Radtke, J., David, M. How Germany is phasing out lignite: insights from the Coal Commission and local communities. Energ Sustain Soc 14, 7 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13705-023-00434-z