Climate crisis: Greece is on fire under a scorching heat wave, but coal is making a comeback

Mitsaris, whose father also worked in the coal mines, bought 44 acres of vines. But he now wonders if he made the right choice – the coal here refuses to stop.

“I fear for the future,” he said. “I have two young daughters to raise.”

Just a year ago, Greece was confident it could shut down all existing coal-fired power plants by 2023. It planned to build one last coal-fired power plant this year in the wider region where Mitsaris, western Macedonia lives. , which generates more than half of the country’s electricity. The new plant, Ptolemaida 5, would then operate in 2025 on natural gas, another polluting fossil fuel, but generally less carbon-intensive than lignite, or lignite, found in this part of Greece.

This entire timeline is now up in smoke.

Greece battles fire that forced hundreds to evacuate on Lesvos island
The deadline to end the use of coal at all existing power plants has been extended from 2023 to 2025, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently suggested that the new Ptolemaida plant will realistically have to burn coal until in 2028 at least. And Greece plans to increase its coal production by 50% over the next two years to make up for the shortage of natural gas as Vladimir Putin tightens the taps to the EU.

Already the changes are obvious. In June 2021, coal generated 253.9 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity. Last June, coal was responsible for 468.1 GWh, almost double.

And that’s as the country battles wildfires across the mainland and its islands, fueled by a scorching heatwave supercharged by climate change – which comes mostly from humans burning fossil fuels like coal. The fires have reduced homes to ashes, people have been rescued from beaches and business owners on islands like Lesbos are facing an economically painful holiday period.

Dimitris Matisaris' father, a retired PPC worker, hands a bottle of wine to his son's cellar.

Big life choices, like where to live and work, are hard to make when government plans keep changing. For Mitsaris, leaving his village where he was born and raised is not an option at the moment.

“My wife worked in a dairy factory, which also closed a few years ago. They offered her a job in Athens, but at the time my salary was enough to support the whole family, so we decided to stay,” he said. “If I had known we would end up in the situation we are in now, I would have gone to Athens back then.”

The Greek government is trying to convince people that its return to coal is only temporary. But the resurgence of coal incites the inhabitants of western Macedonia to return to the industry.

The energy company PPC has offered stable employment to thousands of people in Western Macedonia, where almost one in five people are unemployed.

Here, where everyone calls coal a ‘blessings and a curse’, a return to fossil fuels can mean the difference between staying and leaving.

Already, so many people have left for bigger cities, even moved abroad, to find a new life.

A village in decay

When it comes to transitioning away from coal, Greece has been somewhat of a success story. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Greece depended on coal for only about 9% of its energy supply, compared to 25% just six years ago. It was the first coal-dependent Balkan country to announce a short-term goal to end the use of fossil fuels.

But the transition has always had its challenges – primarily, what opportunities can the country offer former coal town workers?

In Western Macedonia – which supplies 80% of Greece’s coal – the PPC expropriated dozens of villages so they could mine the coal below, moving entire communities to the outskirts. And they were the lucky ones.

A general view of the village of Akrini covered by snow in winter.

During this tricky middle phase – when coal is still being mined but its years are numbered – the residents of Akrini Village find themselves unable to move, even as everything around them crumbles.

Residents here have been in a dispute for more than a decade with the PPC, claiming they are entitled to compensation that will help them leave the village, which has been exposed for years to high levels of ash from the coal operations surrounding them. They successfully lobbied for the right to relocation, now enshrined in a 2011 law.

The PPC told CNN in an email that it was not responsible for the residents of the village and did not answer follow-up questions when presented with the law that says they are entitled to a resettlement assistance by 2021.

Charalambos Mouratidis, 26, is unsure what to do next.

Like Mitsaris, he sought to rebuild his life after leaving a PPC job at a coal mine, where his father also worked. But Mouratidis never had the same job security as his father. I worked shifts for eight months on a short-term contract to clear ash from machinery inside the mine. Instability, low wages and the heavy impact of toxic ash on his health caused him to leave the industry.

A general view of the hill where Charalambos Mouratidis' farm is located in Akrini, with a coal-fired power station in the background.

He now runs a cattle farm, which sits on a hill overlooking Akrini as plumes of smoke and steam rise from the chimneys and cooling towers of coal-fired power plants all around in the background.

In addition to his cattle herding, he works a second job for a solar panel company, usually putting 13 hours a day between them to make ends meet.

Working for the solar panel company is a green job that provides Mouratidis with extra income. But solar expansion is also taking up more and more land, leaving less for cultivation or grazing, so getting permission to expand farmland in Akrini is nearly impossible, he said. .

Apart from the solar farms, all other infrastructure projects in Akrini have been cancelled. The village is slowly dying.

“I started cultivating, hoping to have some sort of more stable future, and now even that effort is on the line,” Mouratidis said. “Everyone has reached a dead end in this village.”

What comes next

The Greek government has devised a 7.5 billion euro ($7.9 billion) plan to help the country transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a green and innovative nation. Its development plan for a just transition, as they are called throughout the European Union, received 1.63 billion euros in EU funding.

Western Macedonia is at the center of the plan and should receive a lot of money, in part to become a renewable energy center in the country. And while the plan is welcomed by many people here, many doubt it can be realized in the six years before the last coal-fired plant is decommissioned.

Mouratidis is skeptical about the money that will help him.

The exterior of Charalambos Mouratidis' farm in Akrini.

“I’m not sure that much of this money will reach people like me, who run small businesses. Some of the money will go to those who openly support the current government and the majority will remain with those who run these businesses. fund”, I said “That’s what history has shown us. Even during Covid-19, the support given to big business and corporations was far greater than the support we got.”

But all hope is not lost. As many workers move from coal to agriculture, some of the EU help is being felt. A few kilometers from Akrini, Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Paschalidis are trying to create sustainable solutions for those who have lost their jobs in the green transition and want to get involved in sheep and goat farming.

Thanks to their Proud Farm Initiative, they act as incubators for Greeks who want to farm sustainably, providing them with access to training and knowledge about the latest technologies available to them.
Nikos Koltsidas and Stathis Paschalidis, founders of "Proud Farm Group of Farmers"  initiative.

“We want to create a network of self-sufficient, environmentally and animal-friendly farms that will require very little capital from new farmers,” Paschalidis said, his sheep bleating in the background.

Koltsidas said he wanted to send the message to local people that agriculture is not what it used to be and can provide a stable future. “It doesn’t require the effort it did in the past, where the farmer had to be on the farm all day, herding the animals or milking them with their hands,” he said.

“Those who are considering going back to work in coal, they should look at all the regions that are thriving without it,” he said. “There’s no need to get stuck in these outdated PPC models.”