11. April 2022Comparing coal commissions: What to learn for future fossil phase-outs?

If the world is to achieve the climate goal set by the Paris Agreement, an accelerated coal phase-out is essential. This policy brief examines stakeholder commissions on coal phase-outs and Just Transition processes of selected countries. The authors compare key aspects of each commission, such as their mandate, outputs, and outcomes and provide lessons for future phase-out processes.

Stakeholder commissions in the context of coal phase-outs

The policy brief examines and compares four coal commissions – the ones in Germany, Canada, the Czech Republic and Chile – in their effort to achieve consensual recommendations on how to organize the phase-outs and/or related Just Transition processes. Based on the analysis, the paper provides lessons for future phase-out processes: it highlights which aspects commissions are likely to manage successfully, and which aspirations they will most likely not be able to fulfil.

Similarities and differences of the four ‘coal commissions’

After providing a detailed information table regarding e.g. the mandate, members, focus, mode of operation, and outputs of the four commissions, the policy brief points out main similarities and differences between them.

As similarities, all four commissions had a similar duration; they all ended with plans for compensation payments for affected workers, regions and companies. In none of the cases existed a clear set of rules how the recommendations were to be implemented in legislation.

Main differences are observed in the commissions’ mandates which diverge widely in terms of the scope of aspects that the commissions were supposed to decide upon. In Germany and Chile, for example, the commissions were followed by bilateral negotiations between the government and power producing companies to define compensation payments and retirement schedules.

Regarding the dialogue with communities, only Canada enabled deliberations ‘on the ground’, i.e. involving workers and citizens directly, whereas the German, Czech Republic and Chilean commissions mainly created a dialogue between high-level stakeholders. Additionally, the Canadian commission was the only one with a focus on achieving a gender balance as well as ensuring First Nations involvement. In all three other commissions, female participation was quite low, with a share of less than 30% in Germany, the Czech Republic and Chile. Also, no discussion or recommendations on the gender implications of the coal phase-outs were included in the final reports of the commissions.

The main analysis: are commissions useful?

The policy brief states that multi-stakeholder commissions can be very useful to create a social dialogue, and to come up with policy proposals especially for Just Transition processes and how to govern structural change.

However, multi-stakeholder commissions might not be the most promising tool to achieve ambitious coal phase-out pathways: None of the three commissions deciding on a phase-out date did so in line with the Paris Agreement.

Moreover, in all four cases, the commission members were picked by the national government, bearing the risk of both (non-)representation of particular interests as well as power imbalances in the capacity different actors.

Also, implementation remained in the hands of the national governments in all four cases; the commission recommendations could therefore be changed before being put into law, showcased in particular by changes or non-implementation of the recommendations in all four countries.

The question therefore remains open whether commissions have been used by governments to outsource difficult decisions and dispense responsibility for decisions and legislation that would have been implemented anyways. Stakeholder commissions should enable inclusive and transparent design processes where power relations, interests, and material and immaterial resources are considered. Member election will also contribute highly to their success.

The Spanish and South African cases

One alternative strategy was used by Spain: To organize the just transition, a continuous dialogue was set up between the national government, coal corporations and trade unions. Those dialogues also included the mayors of the affected municipalities and were not set up for fixed periods of time like the commissions. The Spanish Just Transition strategy contains measures to develop new economic activities in affected regions including support for strategic industrial sectors. Entrusting a designated ministry with the organization of a just phase-out process like in Spain might thus be a promising approach for other countries.

The South African process should also be noted: The Presidential Climate Commission is meant to organize a Just Transition process in a comprehensive manner. Its members represent government, business, labour, civil society and academic institutions. Ad hoc specialist working groups complement their work. Because of its recent creation the case is not included in the above comparison, but should be closely watched, as it might provide more important lessons on how to organize Just Transition processes, in particular for the Global South.

Recommendations

Fossil fuel phase-out commissions can be useful to pacify long standing societal conflicts and to overcome gridlock situations, possibly triggering subsequent, more ambitious changes. To successfully promote a just transition, a ministry, or at least a division in a ministry directly focusing on the just transition could be a useful approach. It would organise stakeholder involvement, identify needed measures to support regions and workers, and acquire the necessary funds to implement them.

If commissions are chosen as the policy instrument, the following criteria are important:

  • A clear mandate to be complied with, setting ambitious targets in line with the Paris agreement. Rules on how to and a timeline until when recommendations are implemented as legislation should be planned for from the outset.
  • Members should represent several stakeholders that have been overlooked in the past, including younger/future generations and taxpayers, and should include a fair gender balance as well as representation of minorities.
  • Power imbalances between members should be corrected for as much as possible and decision structures and institutional processes be made transparent, while providing opportunities for confidential deliberations.
  • Additionally, their focus should not only be on the economic effects but also on the structural change that comes along. For just transition processes, it is also important to address recognition and participation opportunities for affected citizens and consider so far neglected gender implications of phase-outs.
  • For a successful phase-out process, one of the most relevant aspects is the foundation of ambitious climate policies, as well as a commitment by the governing institutions to a just transition, supporting affected regions and communities.

Coal commissions can be a means to support finding societal consensus. Yet apart from chosing the right instrument for coal-phase out processes, countries need to start tackling climate change seriously. A high level of ambition, including a commitment to a Just Transition,  supporting affected regions and communities, is most urgently needed.


Authors

Hanna Brauers
Post-doctoral researcher | CoalExit Group
Europa-Universität Flensburg

Danae Fenner
Research Associate | CoalExit Group
Europa-Universität Flensburg

Editor

Christof Arens
Senior Researcher | Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
Energy, Transport, and Climate Policy Division