Just transition - Between Myth and Reality

May 3, 2023

Floods, tropical heat, droughts, fires and air pollution serve as daily reminders that the negative consequences of climate change are also visible in Montenegro. Montenegro has pledged to contribute to the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GH gases) and to pursue the goal of the EU Green Deal – to make Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050.

Among the key economic sectors in Montenegro, the largest share of GH gas emissions, 74.2%, comes from the energy sector, specifically from electricity production.

The environment has paid the highest price for industrial development and the inevitable use of fossil fuels. In order to protect our planet from climate catastrophe, we need to make a radical transition to a green, sustainable economy and development, with a reduction in dependence on fossil fuels. In the Montenegrin context, this implies the gradual abandonment of coal as a source of energy and heating. Although such a transition is urgently needed, it must be just – which means that decisions should be made in accordance with people's needs, without harming the environment.

What does this mean for Montenegro?

In the EU, renewable energy production capacities have increased by 25% compared to 2020. The European Green Deal, which has an international dimension and includes not only EU member states but also countries that aspire to membership, like Montenegro, recognizes just transition as an opportunity to turn climate challenges into opportunities. Additionally, the issue of just transition is part of one of the most important international agreements related to climate change – the Paris Agreement. Montenegro must now take advantage of this process for its own benefit, and the EU is here to support the transition with its policies and mechanisms for the benefit of the people and economy of Montenegro.

Like any other significant change, this transition causes discomfort in people. Their feelings and attitudes are not negligible because, in the end – just transition exists because of people and local communities, who must be a part of and creators of this process.

For the transition to bring about the best outcomes for all, the competent authorities must manage the process from the beginning to avoid future shocks or investments that do not contribute to the goal or were not discussed with all stakeholders. Strong social consensus and dialogue about the goal and pathways to sustainability are the foundation of good management of this process. The National Council for Sustainable Development, with the support of the newly established Working Group for Just Transition, aims to do just that – gather all relevant partners within a single mechanism, not neglecting anyone and striving to become a consultative body focused on policies, processes, as well as public and private financial investments in just transition in Montenegro, especially in Pljevlja.


The transformation of Pljevlja – from an ecological stain to a healthy city

The coal region, which predominantly spreads over the territory of the municipality of Pljevlja, is the focus of the just transition in Montenegro. For decades, the development of the local community of Pljevlja has relied on the coal value chain, which consists of the coal mine and thermal power plant, along with another 55 directly or indirectly related companies, 14 of which operate in Pljevlja. One-third of the total number of employed men and women in Pljevlja work in the Coal Mine and Thermal Power Plant. For more than half of them, the salary they receive is their only income source for their households.

This is more than enough to understand how complex the process is and how important it is to inform citizens in detail about all its stages so that they understand just transition as a perspective and not as a reason for fear due to an uncertain future. Because, as scary as it may sound – the current state of affairs is not a long-term option for the future. If we do not immediately start investing in the gradual reduction of dependence on fossil fuels, one day, we will have to pay a higher price for improving the quality of life in Pljevlja – not only will we postpone green investments, but we will also pay the price of not taking action and repairing the inevitable damage.

Just transition has become more cost-effective today due to the global increase in renewable energy technologies during the past decade. Nevertheless, this process is not easy and cannot be completed overnight or in a year, most likely not even in five years. Yet, if we start now, we will have time to work our way through systematic planning, organising and implementation of change, always focusing on the people themselves. Just transition presents an opportunity to strengthen the community's resilience, provide decent jobs, create a cleaner environment, eradicate poverty and enhance social cohesion.

Just transition does not mean abruptly shutting down or isolating a value chain that represents the primary source of income for a large part of the local population and the foundation of Montenegro's energy independence. On the contrary, this process should offer a clear vision of how to use Pljevlja's potential and all resources to diversify the economy and build strong programs to support the labour market through investment in training, professional development and retraining of the workforce, as well as the development of entrepreneurship, primarily among young people.

UNDP in Montenegro, together with the National Council and with the financial support of the Slovak Republic Ministry of Finance, is already working on a road map for the gradual transition from coal to green, renewable and sustainable energy sources, at the same time preparing the economy, people and communities for the inevitable change. UNDP’s research shows that more than half of the Thermal Power Plant and Coal Mine employees are willing to participate in adult education.

In cooperation with the local self-government in Pljevlja, we have already started this process by establishing a creative hub as a local platform for innovation and just transition. The hub has been recognized as a gathering place for both young and more experienced creative minds, offering conditions for finding creative, innovative and scientific solutions in various fields, including energy, construction, architecture, traffic, and medicine, and allowing the use of tools for innovative financing, development of start-ups and attracting digital nomads. The combination of local-level efforts and the gradual enhancement of the national innovation ecosystem, including the Innovation Fund, represents a yet untapped potential for creative communities and entrepreneurs in the north.

These initiatives have been aligned with the EU support mechanisms available to the countries of the Western Balkans and Ukraine. Together with the EU Delegation to Montenegro and all relevant international financial institutions and development organisations, we coordinate the exchange of good experiences and practices from EU countries and the world on this journey towards a green future.

Although we may not have answers to all the questions and challenges that this process imposes today, thanks to mutual trust, partnership, open dialogue and a clear vision, we can jointly create a future that will provide better opportunities for all.