14. September 2022Sharing the opportunities of transformation is a key just transition concern

The concept of Just Transition has become a guiding principle for managing structural change in coal regions. Yet, the more people you ask what “Just Transition” means, the more answers you will get. Just Transition has become a container term for all kinds of normative claims. In the CINTRAN project, we are studying empirically which kinds of (in)justice play a role in the affected regions. Specifically, we analyse the political narratives that key stakeholders employ publicly.

Indemann – Nordansicht by Cafezinho at de.wikipedia


Concerning the Rhenish Mining Area we analysed 53 documents from a diverse range of stakeholders. Two major narratives dominate the political discourse. The first is often presented as a story of control or a story of progress. In a nutshell, according to this perspective, the coal phase-out is an opportunity for social and economic development and an ecological turnover in the region. The state government has set up structural support programmes to make the region fit for the future. The business community also embraces the opportunity for the region to become a modern, innovative pilot region. This narrative is mostly perpetrated by governmental actors at the local and regional level, by the governing party, as well as local economic actors and utilities.

The second narrative is much more critical of the developments. The coal phase-out in this view is impeded by the state government and the mining company RWE because they favour profit interests. The concerns of the residents or of climate policy are neglected. The destruction of the climate and local environment as well as the forced resettlements will continue. Local residents are resisting this with the support of the climate movement. This story of restrained progress is mostly employed by environmental groups and local residents’ initiatives but also some progressive trade associations.


Taking a deep dive yields surprising results

So far, these results are not particularly surprising. However, things got much more interesting when we looked into the specific injustices that were mentioned in the context of these two major narratives. The first surprise was that we did not find any generic resistance against phasing out coal anymore. This seems to indicate that the Rhenish Mining Area has already entered an advanced stage of transformation and accepted its fate. Issues about compensation for lost jobs and economic opportunities hardly played a role.

In the context of the second narrative, most texts referred to injustices that originate from the old coal-based industrial system, injustices related to ecological and social fallout of the mining activity. But even among more optimistic proponents of the first narrative we found looming injustices that may harbour political conflict in the future. The analysed texts pointed to injustices related to the distribution and sharing of the opportunities arising from the transformation of the region. A particularly contested issue was the land that will become available as the vast mining operation will be terminated. What will this land be used for? There are competing visions of massive industrial or business parks versus expanded agriculture versus creating massive lakescapes to spur tourism versus restoring natural spaces. Many actors in the region seem to be bursting with ideas of what to do with this opportunity, but who gets to decide what is actually implemented? And how are the decision making processes organised to ensure meaningful participation of less powerful local actors? These will be the aspects of just transition that matter in the Rhenish Mining Area.

In the international realm, especially under the UNFCCC, the just transition discourse has been dominated by those voices concerned about regions losing out and who are wondering about how to distribute and compensate economic losses among workers, companies and regions. Yet, our analysis shows that these anticipated injustices are by far not the only concerns that matter. In fact, in the Rhenish Mining Area they do not matter (anymore). Instead, we found that the narratives on the ground rather point to injustices originating from the old industrial system – continued GHG pollution, forced resettlements and the legacy of wastelands left behind by mining – as well as injustices related to the shaping of the future industrial system with all its opportunities. Policy makers should pay much more attention to these dimensions of just transition.


Further information

The full report on the narrative analysis research will be published later in 2022.



© The blog text is licenced under CC BY. Figures are excluded from this license.


Lukas Hermwille
Senior Researcher | Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
Energy, Transport, and Climate Policy Division

Victoria Brandemann
Researcher | Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy
Energy, Transport, and Climate Policy Division



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

The CINTRAN project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 884539. The sole responsibility for the content of this website lies with the authors and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of CINEA or other EU agencies or bodies.