Overline: Coal exit
Headline: Delivering a Just Transition in Lusatia

The German government has pledged to facilitate a just transition in the former coal region of Lusatia. What exactly does that mean on the ground? Financial issues often loom large in the public debate around the coal exit but the decline of key industries in the region will also result in a loss of recognition and social status. A new paper published in the Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning by Konrad Gürtler (IASS) und Jeremias Herberg (Radboud Universität) examines the tensions between distributive justice and recognition in the context of public debate around the structural transformation in Lusatia.

A controversial legacy: visitors learn about the long history of open-pit lignite mining at Welzow-Süd.
A controversial legacy: visitors learn about the long history of open-pit lignite mining at Welzow-Süd. Andreas Lippold, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The researchers interviewed decision-makers at the local and regional levels about their handling of competing justice claims within their fields of action. According to the authors, these claims are shaped by spatial and moral tensions: spatial, because of differences in discussions within and beyond the region, and moral, because there are mixed feelings about the generous subsidies and social recognition afforded to the region and the achievements of the coal workers. Many people in Lusatia view the subsidies as an attempt to gloss over conflicts through generous spending. This scepticism is often compounded by a perceived lack of recognition.

Intermediary actors such as local politicians must navigate this field of spatial and moral tensions. Drawing on the interviews, the authors describe four "moral rifts" that illustrate how reconciliation in this region proves to be difficult despite considerable redistributive efforts:

1. The coal-legacy rift

Many of the interviewees referred to the long history of coal production, and the decline in economic and cultural value experienced by the region. In doing so, they acknowledge that fossil energy once enjoyed far greater acceptance. And while this has changed, the respondents called for more understanding of the legacies of the fossil economy. They also raised concerns about the distribution of both the costs and benefits of the energy transition and recognition resources in this connection.

2. The post-socialist rift

Coal regions in East Germany experienced the shock of rapid transformation during the 1990s. Although economic injustices were the most prominent, many East Germans also experienced social insecurity and a loss of status that still persists to a degree and which have been passed down through subsequent generations. As a result of these negative experiences, many are less willing to embrace the challenges that the region will face in the unfolding transformation process.

3. Energy production and consumption

The devaluation of industrial labour and related lifestyles in the wake of the energy transition is closely related to what the authors refer to as the “production rift”. Energy consumers in urban centres and rural areas have different spatial and social relationships to energy production. Respondents expressed the belief that, on average, those living closer to mining sites and at a perceived distance from energy-intensive metropolitan areas are more likely to hold positive views about fossil energy. Energy consumers in metropolitan areas, they suggested, are less concerned about the origin of the energy they consume.

4. The causation rift

Many of the interviewees distinguished between those who make decisions in relation to the energy transition and those who must shoulder the costs. The authors refer to this as the “causation rift”. In this view, political recognition is primarily assigned to the call for environmental transformations, not to the industrial labour that underpins Germany’s economic stability. Many of the interviewees tended to downplay the negative environmental impacts of the coal industry and locate responsibility for the energy transition at a different political level.

“As long as these rifts and recognition deficits remain, the prospects for a successful structural transformation in Lusatia remain troubled. However, these calls for recognition, which are plausible considering Lusatia’s turbulent history, must be openly discussed and critically distinguished from populist narratives ¬ especially in light of the efforts of right-wing populist movements to instrumentalize conflicts in Lusatia," says lead author Konrad Gürtler. Tackling the intersecting issues of redistribution and recognition will be crucial to delivering a just transition in the region.

Gürtler, K., Herberg, J. (2021 online): Moral rifts in the coal phase-out—how mayors shape distributive and recognition-based dimensions of a just transition in Lusatia. - Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning.