20 Nov, 2019

Coal regions today, innovative hubs tomorrow?

How can regions contribute to decarbonisation efforts, arising from the Paris Agreement and what role can digitization play in this transformation? The members of the Renew Europe Group in the European Committee of the Regions (Renew Europe CoR) set out to Düsseldorf for a series of study visits to tackle these challenges and a debate about the future of Europe on 11 and 12 November.

Scheduled to phase out coal by 2038, the region of Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) formed the perfect backdrop for the group’s meeting organised by a German CoR member Dietmar Brockes, of the NRW State Parliament and chairman of the Committee for Europe and International Affairs, to discuss the challenges for a sustainable Europe.

As Manuel Alejandro Cardenete (ES/Ciudadanos) stated: “It is not possible to postpone the transition for a sustainable Europe. It is thus necessary to create real incentives and signals from the EU for this proposal. The next 2021-2027 framework is the chance for this goal.”

For traditional coal regions like NRW, the decarbonisation process is hard(er) and they need special attention. Closing coal mines such as those near Düsseldorf by 2038 means that new jobs need to be created for thousands of people who work in this sector. Several of the study visits showed how a region like NRW is attracting new companies, invests in innovation in order to open new working places and attracts new investment to the region. This was illustrated by several study visits to new companies and projects such as the Aldenhoven Testing Center for autonomous driving and 5G, Digital Innovation Hub Düsseldorf and Startplatz

Talking with Christoph Dammermann, State Secretary and Minister of Economic Affairs, Innovation and Digitization on the first day and Prof. Dr. Andreas Pinkwart, Minister of Economy, Innovation, Energy and Digitization on the second day, several of Renew Europe CoR members voiced their local experiences and their citizen’s fears and needs. Eamon Dooley (IE/Fianna Fail), from County Offaly where the extraction of peat is coming to an end, said he learned that “the energy transition means dealing with people as well as with communities in a transparent and fair way. Nobody should be left behind.”

Doreen Huddart (UK/Liberal Democrats) added that these structural changes in coal and carbon intensive regions “are not just or only an energy but also an ethical question. We need to create valuable energy and employment alternatives.” Frank Cecconi (FR) said that citizens will profit from opportunities that will not take place immediately, so “we need to ensure the acceptance of our citizens and Europe has to a key role to play in this”. Carlos Aguillar Vazquez (ES/Ciudadanos) concluded that “Assistance such as the Just Transition Fund needs to be open to all coal and carbon intensive regions: the fact that mines are physically closed, it certainly does not mean that the transition is over.”

The discussion was followed by a study visit to the impressive Garzweiler surface mine.

In an engaging debate with the members, Moritz Körner MEP addressed the European Committee of the Regions members who he urged to act even more as real “ambassadors of EU policy”.

He identified digitalisation and dealing with technological challenges as a true challenge for Europe, which is currently behind countries like China, arguing that “Digitalisation has to serve the people and through digital innovations we should make their lives better. The European way has to be a digital world with privacy and data protection. Regulating big digital platforms should not lead to blocking innovation in Europe, as we need innovation.”

Mart Vörklaev, who has been CoR rapporteur for the telecom package and the boosting of broadband in Europe, chimed in: “99% of public services in Estonia are available online. Estonians trust e-solutions for setting up a company, visiting the doctor, electronic voting,...Important in all of this is that our teachers are being taught digital skills and to all have fast connections – European programmes such as WIFI4EU for example enables our cities to build fast internet in public areas.”

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