Structural change in coal regions as a process of economic and social-ecological transition – Lessons learnt from structural change processes in Germany

Climate Change 33/2021


Effective policies to mitigate climate change need to be accompanied by a socially just transition. This is especially relevant for coal regions. This paper draws on the experiences of past and ongoing transition policies, exploring their effectiveness and transferability. The challenges of structural change in coal regions are complex and region-specific, spanning from technical aspects over political and economic to social and cultural aspects.

To facilitate the exchange of experiences, a typology is suggested and applied to five coal regions in
Germany, Romania, Poland and the Czech Republic. It characterises regions according to the type of coal mined, population density, economic prosperity, existence of national coal phase-out policies, advancement of regional transition strategies and the anticipated speed of transition.

Insights are mainly derived from two different structural change processes in Germany. The hard coal mining phase-out in the Ruhr area that started in the 1950s and has recently been completed is compared with the more recent lignite mining phase-down in Lusatia. A new approach can be
observed: As climate change has become a major driver of structural change, time frames for
structural policies have become significantly shorter, and such policies are being shaped by more
proactive engagement.

Lessons learnt include the need for proactive and forward-looking structural policies and the
importance of timing. Regions should set realistic expectations on structural policy and develop
strategies that account for their individual situation whilst learning from past experiences in other
regions. Uncertainties should be communicated in a transparent manner. Diversification of the
economy is needed to avoid lock-in effects. Stakeholder participation, just transition strategies as well as multi-layered and multi-faceted governance approaches are key aspects as well. With the European Green Deal, a strategy is highlighted that can facilitate a just transition in coal regions in the future.


  • E3G - Third Generation Environmentalism, Berlin office

  • German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), Berlin

  • Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie